Fans of Chinese Wuxia Fantasy-Adventures know that John Woo began his career in this genre around 30 plus years ago. He had such strong competition that the famed action director instead made his mark in Hong Kong “Bullet Ballet” with acclaimed movies such as “Hard-Boiled” and “The Killer”. Well, after the huge success of the 5 ½ + hour two-part epic “Red Cliff”, John Woo seems to be making a return to Chinese Wuxia as he co-produces, co-directs with writer/co-director Su Chao-Bin in the finely crafted, tragically romantic Mandarin-period Wuxia epic called “Reign of the Assassins”. The film stars one of the best female actresses who ever did a spin kick, Malaysian-Chinese actress Michelle Yeoh in the lead.
I’ve often said that Ang Lee‘s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” may have opened America’s doors to Chinese Wuxia, but it is not the best one out there. Lee's Wuxia-fantasy film was very good but it was aimed for the consumption of American audiences. It wasn't exactly a Wuxia for the real fans of the genre. Well, Wuxia has evolved since the days of the "One-Armed Swordsman". This film does not have the usual staples of a John Woo film such as camaraderie, brotherhood, loyalty and the display of white doves; prepare to see something a lot closer in tone and mood to that Ang Lee directed epic as writer Su Chao-Bin brings a tale of betrayal, tragedy and love that embodies the spirit of Chinese wuxia.
The film begins with an animated sequence that spells out the story of the enlightened monk Bodhi whose knowledge of Buddhist teachings and martial arts may grant the possessor of his remains to become invincible and nigh-immortal. The Dark Stone is a group of assassins who is seeking out the remains and is willing to murder everyone who stands in their path. After they lay siege on the house of a local official who had part of the remains, the group’s top assassin Drizzle (Kelly Lin) makes off with part of Bodhi’s remains. Somehow, Drizzle became a changed woman and seeks to find peace, and with the aid of a surgeon who dabbles in the mystic arts, Drizzle resurfaces as a new woman with a different face in Nanjing called Jing (Michelle Yeoh). There she begins a normal life and falls in love with a lowly worker named Ah-Sheng (Korean actor Jung Woo-Sung, The Good The Bad The Weird). However, fate plays its hand as a robbery causes Jing to reveal her skills to defend herself and the Dark Stone assassin group led by the Wheel King (Wang Xueqi) finds her whereabouts. Now Jing must engage her former allies Lei Bin (Shawn Yue), a magician (Leon Dai) and a new recruit called Turquoise (Barbie Hsu) in combat as they descend upon this new life she had built for herself….
“Reign of Assassins” has a plot that seems so familiar and yet, I found the story quite refreshing and compelling. I suppose it is because of the fact that the film takes its time in fleshing out its main character; as the viewer becomes privy to the events that made her consider a change of heart. This change didn’t happen overtime, Drizzle is shown as someone who makes a connection with stoic monk who teaches her that she wasn’t invincible and that there is more to life than taking a life. Kelly Lin has limited screen time and as soon as Drizzle undergoes her change in features, the film goes from a darker and philosophical tone that switches to the trappings of a romantic comedy. Jing is reluctant to pursue any relationships until she slowly gets won over by Ah-Sheng. This shift may confuse some viewers but it was necessary to show the changes one’s life can through; fate is decided by the choices we make and not the other way around.
Another area that made this film go above its clichéd premise is the fact that the villains in the film have a lot of character. They are not your usual villains bent on a single-minded purpose, they all have their desires and personalities. The group is also distinguishable through their fighting styles, that also reflect their personalities in some ways. The Wheel King has his own issues as to why he desires Bodhi’s remains, his is more a desire out of vanity perhaps. The magician is interested in more power obviously while Shawn Yue’s Lei Bin is a simple man with a family who just wants to make a living while keeping his family in the dark about the details of his job. I was ecstatic to see a female assassin who is a nymphomaniac, she became loyal to the group after she had slain her husband for being impotent. The direction did a fabulous job fleshing out its characters, and even though they were the antagonists, they felt real and easy to become attached to. Ah-Sheng is the type of man that would make one wonder how he cold make a woman such as Jing fall for him but he plays one of the film’s aces.
The film is wonderfully acted, there were times that I thought Yeoh and Woo-Sung struggled to form a chemistry as some parts of the film was a bit dragging. But the two does manage to pull through and the disconnect appeared to be an intentional device which is necessary to make its twists and turns credible. There is a twist as the film approaches its final encounter (and what a final encounter it was!) and this twist is the totality of its themes of choices and true love. Yeoh is 10 years older than Woo-Sung in real life and it just makes their relationship much more interesting. For a woman her age, Yeoh looks lovelier than most younger actresses I’ve known. Wang Xueqi makes for a convincing desperate villain and the stoic presence of Shawn Yue helped his character. Barbie Hsu is just creepy and sexy as the nymphomaniac’ too bad this is a Chinese movie and so, there is no nudity.
Michelle Yeoh looks and moves amazing in the fights. The choreography was expertly played as the wire work was only used to enhance the impact and not to make the action look more ‘spiffy’. The fights are reminiscent to those seen in Wuxia films; they are beautiful, graceful and intense. Michelle Yeoh is indeed one of the best actresses who ever starred in martial arts films; she is graceful, confident and has the presence of a strong-willed woman bent on protecting her new life. To make things short, “Reign of Assassins” is a successful film because of Michelle’s commanding charisma and fighting skills. She is just awesome!
All right, let’s get one thing out of the way. John Woo co-directed this film but it hardly has any slow motion, fast editing to look cool and there is no Mexican stand offs or white doves. “Reign of Assassins” is a return to classic wuxia filmmaking albeit with a more modern approach. This is not John Woo of “Hard Boiled” but Woo working with Su Choi-Bin; together they make a film about nobility, sacrifice, humor, romance, magic and a lot of kung fu. It is the film Asian movie fans are clamoring for and it is a celebration of one of Asia’s most illustrious film genre.
Su Chao-Bin and John Woo makes a return to classic Wu Xia filmmaking with Michelle Yeoh as the main protagonist. Great fights and a well laid out plot (despite its cliches) carry the films momentum. The film is a tale of romance, sacrifice and personal principle that maintains the spirit of Kung Fu. See Full Review here.
Set in ancient China, Zeng Jing is a skilled assassin who finds herself in possession of a mystical Buddhist monk's remains. She begins a quest to return the remains to its rightful resting place, and thus places herself in mortal danger because a team of assassins is in a deadly pursuit to possess the remains which holds an ancient power-wielding secret.