REIGN OF ASSASSINS Review
Whenever John Woo has a new film project coming out it spells good times ahead for fans of Hong Kong cinema. The fact that the production of REIGN OF ASSASSINS, a Ming-Dynasty set wuxia drama, was merely overseen by the once-great master of action cinema, shouldn't dissuade viewers from enjoying what is an elegant, finely-crafted and often painfully romantic adventure. Woo's input is very much in a supervisory capacity here and there is little onscreen that would betray his presence to those unaware of his involvement. His favoured themes of camaraderie, loyalty and vaguely homoerotic male bonding are notably absent in this tale of a deadly assassin looking to escape her murderous past and retire to a normal life. Praise must therefore be handed squarely to writer/director Su Chao-bin for delivering such an accomplished and engaging film, perhaps closer in tone to Ang Lee's CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON than anything we've seen previously from the creator of HARD BOILED and BULLET IN THE HEAD.
REIGN OF ASSASSINS opens with an animated prologue telling the story of enlightened monk Bodhi, whose unmatched accomplishments in both Buddhist prayer and martial arts have ensured whoever now possesses his remains will become all-powerful. A gang of assassins, The Dark Stone, learns that a local official is in possession of half of Bodhi's remains and proceeds to massacre his entire family, only for Drizzle (Kelly Lin), the gang's deadliest member, to escape with the body. Compelled to finally lay the remains to rest, Drizzle goes into hiding, has her appearance changed by a surgeon and resurfaces in Nanjing as the unassuming Jing (Michelle Yeoh). There she falls in love with local courier Ah-Sheng (Korean actor Jung Woo Sung), and plans to build a normal life. The Dark Stone is in hot pursuit however, and when Jing is caught up in a bank robbery and forced to use her signature water shedding sword technique, her location is exposed and Dark Stone leader Wheel King (Wang Xueqi), together with Lei Bin (Shawn Yue), The Magician (Leon Dai) and newly recruited Turquoise (Barbie Hsu) descend on Nanjing, determined to kill Drizzle and retrieve Bodhi's remains.
After a violent opening, REIGN OF ASSASSINS shifts down a gear and takes its time detailing Drizzle's yearning to escape a life of brutality and violence. She has a brief, yet passionate affair with a trainee monk, Wisdom, who reveals to her the flaws in her martial arts. Were she to come face to face with a master, such as Wheel King - the man who trained her - she would surely lose. On arrival in Nanjing she is reluctant to get involved with anyone, yet eventually sees a window of opportunity in the unassuming Ah-Sheng. The film threatens to slip into romantic comedy at times during the couple's courtship, but hastily gathers itself just in time to re-focus on the impending danger of The Dark Stone's imminent arrival. Su's script does a great job fleshing out each of these characters to become something more than novelty one-note villains, distinguishable only by their choice of weapons or fighting style. Turquoise is a vicious nymphomaniac who murdered her husband for being impotent. Wheel King rescues her from a death sentence and trains her as Drizzle's replacement, only to discover he has created a monster perhaps even he is incapable of controlling. Lei Bin is a family man, seemingly using his skills merely as a regular source of income. His wife and young child are unaware of his deadly vocation, yet dependent upon him to bring home the bacon - or in this case, noodles - and hopefully one day move away from the city for a quieter life. The Magician is the arrogant showman in the group who infuses his kung fu with trickery and magic, enabling him to produce balls of fire, climb magic ropes and perform other superhuman feats, while Wheel King's back-story and motivation for acquiring Bodhi's remains reveal an ironic twist on the standard quest for villainous omnipotence.
Because of this attention to characters and their motivations, REIGN OF ASSASSINS rises above many recent period action epics of its type. It doesn't require its audience have an encyclopedic knowledge of Chinese history, nor does it assume we harbour an unquenchable thirst for gaudy set dressing or sweeping vistas of CG-enhanced battlefields. Instead it tells an exciting and emotionally involving story of love, greed, betrayal and revenge, infused throughout with expertly choreographed and competently staged fight sequences that go a long way to proving Michelle Yeoh is still one of the most graceful and accomplished martial arts performers on our screens. As good as the film's other elements are, REIGN OF ASSASSINS works as well as it does because of Yeoh's commanding central performance.
John Woo fans looking for smoke-lined slo-mo shots of doves, standoffs and bleeding adversaries tearfully holding each other will leave REIGN OF ASSASSINS hankering to rewatch THE KILLER, but those more appreciative of classic wuxia should find Su Chao Bin and John Woo's film a welcome return to Chinese Cinema's most celebrated genre. Featuring noble heroes, despicable villains, humour, romance, magic and a lot of great kung fu, REIGN OF ASSASSINS is exactly the kind of movie critics of the local industry have been clamouring for. And if nothing else, the film should be praised for being something more than mere nationalistic breast-beating. The sooner the Chinese film industry learns that it's ok just to tell damn entertaining stories like this one, the better for all of us.
Reign of Assassins
- Chao-Bin Su
- Chao-Bin Su
- Michelle Yeoh
- Woo-sung Jung
- Xueqi Wang
- Barbie Hsu