The aged emperor (Liu Ye) lies on his sickbed, haunted by mist-shrouded nightmares of his two greatest enemies, Lord Yu (Daniel Wu) and Gen. Xin (Chang Chen). Yet these men once stood as his greatest friends and allies. In flashback we see him, as simple peasant Liu Bang, approaching the great Lord Yu for help in freeing his hometown and rescuing his wife (Qin Lan). To his astonished gratitude, he is given 5,000 men and invited to join the powerful nobleman in his struggle to overthrow the tyrannical Qin Empire.
Helmer Lu and lensers Zhang Li and Ma Cheng, together with production designer Chen Haozhong and art director Lu Tianhang, have outdone themselves with their depiction of the majestic palace; its flowing water and symmetrical blocks of sculpted stone are further enhanced by CGI, visually conveying Liu's transformation via menacingly lit seas and massive, morphing clouds. The palace's vast archives figure prominently in ensuing power plays as the truth gets repeated rewrites, this ancient revisionism staged dramatically in the film's treacherous denouement.
Lu's direction of the action scenes runs strategically hot and cold. Tensions between commoner Liu and nobleman Yu climax in a startling setpiece, the famous Hong Gate banquet, where Yu's advisers, fearing Liu's intent, orchestrate a murderous ceremonial sword dance, each ritualized gesture a provocation and a threat. Later retaliation by Liu, joined by Yu's ex-bodyguard, the now-Gen. Xin, receives chillier treatment in remarkably bloodless, abstractly choreographed battle scenes.
The film's final third, firmly anchored in the present, sweeps forward with awful inevitability as the empress, with Lady Macbeth-like singleness of purpose, consolidates power and annihilates all obstacles to her imminent reign. Surrounding her, servants, scribes and ministers subserviently prostrate themselves or scuttle across the floor on all fours, living embodiments of dictatorial rule. Flashbacks function to emphasize the enormous tragic disconnect between what Liu and his wife once represented and what they have become.
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