Academic journal article Film & History

Character Assassination?: Empire Building and Cultural Pathology in Chen Kaige's the Emperor and the Assassin

Academic journal article Film & History

Character Assassination?: Empire Building and Cultural Pathology in Chen Kaige's the Emperor and the Assassin

Article excerpt

Based on a 1st- century -B. C. E. historical text, The Emperor and the Assassin depicts the Chinese empire at its "originary" moment. ' It is 225 B.C. Ying Zheng, King of Qin, is obsessed with uniting six other kingdoms under his control. To justify the invasion of the Yan kingdom, Ying Zheng conspires with his concubine and childhood companion, Lady Zhao, who will pose as a criminal, to provoke the prince of Yan into hiring an assassin, Jing Ke, to kill Ying Zheng. But the plan backfires. Lady Zhao, though originally supportive of Ying Zheng's quest to unify the states of China, is mortified when Ying Zheng's brutality extends to her homeland. She now wants Jing Ke to succeed.

While critics have almost unanimously praised the director's masterly orchestration of epic spectacle, Kaige's penchant for alternating between epic and intimate scenes has been denounced as either too contrived or disconcerting.2 The alternations broke the narrative flow. For example, although the film is divided into five chapters - "The King of Qin," "The Assassin," "The Children," "Lady Zhao," "The King of Qin," and the Assassin" - the many episodes within these chapters do not necessarily cause or follow one another. Instead, they compare, contrast, underline, and support one another. The logic of the film is n on -chronologic al, because, as the film reveals, the line of succession to the Chinese throne is itself a lie - a lie that, of course, cannot be told but that, in its very secrecy, generates the unique character of a leader. And thus is born a kingdom from a single disjointed mind.

More specifically, Kaige suggests that the struggle to unify China is the struggle to unify Ying Zheng himself, whose mental disarray has resulted from concealing a fact of which he is not yet aware: his mother was impregnated by Lu Buwei before she was presented by Lu to the Qin heir, whom Ying Zheng succeeded; Ying Zheng is an illegitimate heir to the throne. To conceal the truth, his mother must systematically break the narrative of Zhen's lineage, but the historical gaps she introduces also enter her son's psyche. Lies, if maintained, inevitably generate ruptures in history, and those ruptures, or gaps, shape the mind. The shameful secret of Ying Zheng's history, because of its concealed presence just below consciousness, has distorted the process of individuati on, resulting in what psychoanalysts Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok would call "preservative repression," a term that refers to the contained disturbances of "phantom" knowledge.3 Kaige's film successfully adopts this "phantom" psychology by mimicking the Chinese leader's ruptured mental landscape. In so doing, the film also diagnoses the traumatic consequences for China of Ying Zheng's inability to become an autonomous subject. A single psyche, and by extension a collective consciousness - an emergent nation - may be haunted, and thus organized pathologically, by a phantom secret.4

A phantom forms when a drama too shameful to be articulated is concealed or repressed by a parent and then transmitted to the child without ever being spoken. The knowledge is all unconscious. The language and behavior of the individual who unknowingly receives this silent communication (the phantom) may appear incongruous, haunted, obsessive, or phobic because the phantom knowledge has in fact originated with someone else. It exists outside any traditional view of behavioral development. As Nicholas Rand states,

the phantom represents a radical reorientation of Freudian and post-Freudian theories of psychopathology, since here symptoms do not spring from the individual's own life experiences but from someone else's psychic conflicts, traumas, or secrets. It suggests that the unsettling disruptions in the psychic life of one person can adversely and unconsciously affect someone else. The concept of the phantom redraws the boundaries of psychopathology and extends the realm of possibilities for its cure by suggesting the existence within an individual of a collective psychology [composed] of several generations. …

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