John Woo's "Red Cliff" saga ruled despite the absence of Chow Yun-Fat who chose to star in the American adaptation of the anime series "Dragonball Evolution". To make matters worst, Chow Yun-Fat was forced to wear a Hawaiian shirt in that film while Tony Leung was clad in Chinese armor. Well, I guess to atone for that mistake, Chow Yun-Fat now stars as Cao-Cao, in the Three Kingdoms era film " The Assassins".
“The Assassins” is a film that chronicles a later time in Cao Cao’s life. The events in the film happen after his defeat at Red Cliff (as portrayed in the film “Red Cliff II”) and after he has officiated over the death of Guan Yu. Directed by Zhao Lin-Shan, the film had been partly inspired by the supposed discovery of Cao Cao’s tomb in 2009, in which the body of a woman was found buried alongside the remains of Cao Cao. This unidentified remains became the inspiration for the Ling Ju character and why this fictional character is given ties to Three Kingdoms’ legends with fictional ties to other renowned figures of that period.
China is still split into three kingdoms. Chancellor Cao Cao (Chow Yun-Fat) is getting old, and he is plagued from all sides as numerous parties are either seeking his removal or death. A puppet emperor of the military, called Xian (Alec Su) is primary of these parties and so Cao Cao manipulates things by lightly deferring to this power, even while lightly imposing his own will. Cao Pi (Qiu Xin-Zhi) is his own son, and even he has his own political agenda to secure his own position of power by having his own sire gone and arrange for Xian‘s collapse. Cao Pi also has designs on Xian’s alluring wife, the Empress Fu Shou (Annie Yi), Cao Pi can do a lot more without his own father’s meddling. All these things are occurring even as Cao Cao does what he needs to stem this dissension, and to make things much more complicated, there is a prophecy where 4 stars would align signaling the end of a dynasty. Cao Cao needs to make a move otherwise he may be removed from power.
Chow Yun-Fat is undeniably one of the actors who can command a scene because of his strong on-screen presence. Donning an armor, he appears to be immovable as the ambitious king Cao Cao. Chow’s acting abilities and physical presence is the one thing that drives this film. The film is more a drama that takes its chops from all the political maneuvering and secret dealings. It is more about people trying to get the best of the other, with intrigue and double-talk driving the intricacies of its plot. Coercion and betrayal through ‘masked’ friendships with some passive-aggression Cao Cao uses to get his point across. The shadow of the supposed prophecy adds some tension, but much of the sequences that express the political arena feel staged and indirect. Well, it does have its good moments as the players vie for power. The film does engage on a cerebral level, so attention to the film’s script is a must.
While the film does have its moments as a period drama whose central focus are focused on its political arena rather than war, I do have some issues in the emotions it seeks to instill with the screenplay. Much of them rely on the two orphans, Ling Ju and Mu Shun (played by Liu Lifei and Tamaki Hiroshi) who have been raised and trained with the express purpose of assassinating Cao Cao. Having played into Cao cao’s kingdom with Mu Shun serving as a eunuch while Ling Ju playing as Cao Cao’s mistress, their positions in the story felt rather cliché and a little awkward. To make things a little more complicated, Ling Ju holds feelings for Mu Shun, all the while as she tries to understand the mind of the proclaimed tyrant, Cao Cao. The two were injected as an extension of the story as the two definitely are in love. This romantic subplot serves as the emotional stance of the screenplay, but this romantic subplot did not work well within the core of the plot. It almost seems like their story should be a different story altogether.
I know, I have discussed how the Ling Ju character were given life into the script. She became a glorified figure in Cao Cao’s life, as she narrates the film, giving some philosophical mumbo-jumbo and explanation to Cao Cao’s actions, in a sense she serves to justify the figure. It all seems familiar and yet different, but the style and content is nothing truly special. I do have to say, while Chow Yun-Fat truly became the center of the film for his role as his appeared to be a conflicted hardnosed figure. He was a little less charismatic than others who have played the Cao Cao role, but still effective, while the rest of the cast unfortunately falls a little short.
True, Alec Su was built for entertainment, as he portrays Xian as a diva; he plans to destroy all his competitors all the while pretending that he is innocent. He felt a little cartoonish and unconvincing in his portrayal. Liu Yifei is the film‘s eye candy, and is about average in her performance. Tamaki Hiroshi was somewhat successful in his role. The film also has some sequences of action, but they felt cumbersome and empty. I do have to say that while they stylish and shallow, it was nice to see some blood around the film. The costumes were good and the set designs were decent, but nothing really to write home about, since the designs are familiar.
“The Assassins” is something that carries a familiar theme. It is about someone who is willing to become a villain for the greater good. Chow was good as the despicable Cao Cao. Also, the two-faced backstabbing can be interesting even when its emotions felt a little flat. The film does have its good moments despite its uneven cast. However, it is not a film that is fresh and it feels that we’ve all seen this before. “The Assassins” wasn’t bad, it serves as an average addition to the Kings and Assassins period piece.
Timid Recommendation [3 ½ Out of 5 Stars]
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