Directed by Chen Kaige (Farewell my concubine), this film shares much of its basic story with Hero in that it deals with the end of the Chinese Warring States period, the creation of a unified 'chinese' empire and a plot to kill the King of Qin, but the treatment is different in terms of cinematic style and the meaning behind the story.
The plot revolves around Ying Zheng (King of Qin) and his 'quest' to unify the other six kingdoms under his rule.
The film begins with the conquest of the Han and the main plot involves Ying Zhengs lover, Lady Zhao (played by Gong Li) going off on a clandestine mission to provide a pretext for him to attack another state Yan.
While she is away, there are complications at court and Ying Zheng, who is portrayed as a peace-loving unifier, gradually becomes (or is revealed to be) a ruthless tyrant.
The central question is whether personal desire for love and happiness can coincide with political ambition and a desire to save the world (or at least ancient China) through absolutist rule.
Or to put it another way, "What profit a man if he gains the world and loses his soul" ?
The cast of characters includes some convincing supporting performances particularly from Fengyi Zhang as the assassin Jing Ke.
Jing Ke is a very interesting character and he and Ying Zheng Ke are portrayed as living opposite lives in many respects .
The courtly intrigues are handled with depth and they are driven by the characters rather than to satisfy the need for plot twists.
This is a film which will reveal more with each watching and I suspect there are other subtle clues that I will never get due to my lack of knowledge about the culture.
In terms of cinematography, it couldn't be less like Hero. No beautiful painted scenes of ochre leaves, no wire fighting. The palette is subdued and the fights are generally short and brutally functional.
I thoroughly enjoyed this film. Definitely a historical drama (rather than an action film), but one with well developed characters and many scenes of real emotional depth as well as a grand sweeping backdrop of epic proportions.