A rare export from Vietnam, The Lady Assassin is a classic martial arts romp in the old Shaw Brothers vein. Employing a simple plot and serviceable martial arts, Nguyen Quang Dung's romantic fantasy is buoyed up by an eye-popping cast of gorgeous performers.
It is a rare treat when a film from Vietnam breaks free of its domestic shackles and heads out into international waters. Earlier this month we heard that the eagerly anticipated Cho Lon from ScreenAnarchy favourite Johnny Nguyen had failed to pass the local censorship board, and as a result was forbidden from being screened either on home turf or overseas. No such problems for Nguyen Quang Dung's The Lady Assassin (aka My Nhan Ke), however, which broke box office records when it opened over the Tet (Lunar New Year) Holiday back in February.
In the remote, shoreline Duong Son Tavern, the beautiful landlady Kieu Thi (Thanh Hang) lures weary travellers, bandits and officials into her establishment with the help of her three stunning hostesses. But rather than sell themselves, the girls rob and murder their guests, hording a growing pile of gold for a rainy day.
In their latest haul, however, the women discover the bound and desperate Linh Lan (Tang Thanh Ha) hidden in a coffin. She begs them to spare her life and train her in martial arts, so she can kill evil general Quan Du, who murdered her family. Kieu Thi agrees, and takes Linh Lan under her wing, but it soon transpires not everyone is who they originally claimed to be.
The plot of The Lady Assassin is pretty by-the-numbers, yet also effective, setting up a quintet of feisty independent women, evil outlaws, corrupt officials and plenty of dark secrets, which all come to a head in the film's tragic climax. Along the way there are petty rivalries between the girls, misunderstandings, communal bath times and numerous training sequences as Linh Lan hones her martial arts skills, while simultaneously learning the trade of being a sexy seductress. There's even time amidst all this for a brief musical number.
While a Shaw Brothers film from the 1980s would have been packed full of memorable wuxia action, director Nguyen duly embraces the limitations of his cast, while fully cashing in on their more bankable qualities. The Lady Assassin, as its title might suggest, does include plenty of action in its brisk 90-odd minutes, but its fight scenes are largely assisted by wirework and CGI, and can't be praised as anything more than adequate.
Where The Lady Assassin excels however, is in just how damn beautiful it is. The film is slickly put together, but all five of its central femmes fatales are drop dead gorgeous, and actively looking to accentuate that fact whenever they are on screen - which fortunately, is pretty much the entire film. It is disconcerting just how attractive these women are, and as a result, seeing them seduce dangerous bandits, perform acrobatic feats of athleticism and wield swords with a deadly purpose for so much of the film's runtime, doesn't avail much opportunity for criticism.
While this marks the first time Vietnam has released a 3D wuxia film (the first 3D release being 2011's The High School Ghosts), I saw the film in 2D so cannot comment on that particular aspect of the production. That aside, The Lady Assassin is a simple, unremarkable, yet wholly appreciable piece of work, albeit one that's never going to be labelled a genre classic. However, The Lady Assassin is more than comparable to plenty of Hong Kong and China's recent output, and there is a proven audience for seeing beautiful women give evil men a good arse-kicking, and in that regard, The Lady Assassin is entirely successful.
The Lady Assassin 3D opens at the Regal Garden Grove 16 Theater in Garden Grove, California on 28 June.