Working with by far his largest budget to date, Chinese master Chen Kaige orchestrates an epic -- and epically melodramatic -- reproduction of the bloody unification of China in The Emperor and the Assassin. From the first moments, with the massive title cards bearing down on the massive battlefields, everything about this film is big. Yet it's Chen's trademark skill that he can focus down to the minute emotional nuances of his characters, allowing the big and the small to exist harmoniously in the same material. It's also pretty impressive that he can maintain a sense of suspense, especially when the outcome of the central narrative is known to all students of Chinese history. Li Xuejian portrays the emperor as a man occasionally conflicted about what he must do, but he also ends up with so much blood on his hands, tempered by so little pity, that viewers almost require his eventual destruction as a precondition for their catharsis. The fact that it's not as simple as that doesn't diminish the experience of watching the climax. Chen has gone to great lengths in the decorating of these sets and the recreation of this era, but still has plenty left for a juicy and interwoven political narrative. Certain revelations verge on the stuff of soap opera, but Chen embraces their operatic side, rather than their soapy side. The soul of the movie is Gong Li's Lady Zhao, forced to confront what she's refused to acknowledge her entire life, and Zhang Fengyi's weary assassin, as doomed by his prior choices as by anything that lies ahead of him. The Emperor and the Assassin leaves the melancholy impression that even virtuous actions carry heavy costs, and that the eventual verdicts of history are of little consolation in the present.