There is a veritable treasure trove of Eastern (i.e. Asian, Japanese, Chinese, and other national or cultural influences) that deserve to find wider recognition within the United States, and – for the life of me – I’ve never understood why. To a certain degree, I can understand why some audiences shy away from motion pictures with subtitles, but when the quality is there I think viewers would understandably embrace these films because their lessons tend to be universal. In fact, I’d argue that films like SWORD OF THE ASSASSIN have most of the ingredients people want in a story – there’s always a bit of magic, mystery, and mysticism wrapped around a central story that inevitably boils down to a grand ol’ good-versus-evil battle to the finish.
What more could one want?
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
As a young child, Nguyen Vu (played by Hyunh Dong) washes ashore on a lake adjoining a temple guarded over by a lone monk. Raised in this solitude, all the youngster has to occupy his time is the perfecting of his martial arts – it would seem that Vu has been gifted with some great abilities, yet he’s been unable to bring them under his control. Twelve years later, the monk reveals to the young man the true past, that he’s the last survivor of a family sentenced to death by royal decree; and, if he is to finally find peace in this world, he will have to confront this evil and allow his ancestors some comfort in the afterlife. In order to make this happen, Vu will have to join forces with a displaced prince harboring a secret and a fierce young woman who’s deadly with a sword. Together, they might manage to change the world, provided they can survive long enough to see it happen.
SWORD OF THE ASSASSIN is a movie lover’s delight. It has a bit of everything wrapped up into its story – palace intrigue, terrific action sequences, and both heroes and villains struggling to some degree with their own respective moral quandaries. As often happens in tales of this nature, Vu’s relatives were wrongly accused in part of a scheme to cause a change within the royal line; and he’s not the only one with his eyes set on storming the castle to clear his family name. As he’s quick to learn, kings and queens are very skilled at making enemies.
I’ve read elsewhere (on the web) that SWORD is one of the first Vietnamese films to truly experiment with epic storytelling of this nature, and, if that’s true, director Victor Vu (who also served in part on the team that adapted the screenplay from a beloved novel) certainly was in the right place at the right time. I’d imagine that much of the narrative success of the picture is due to his firm grasp of the material as well as knowing how to bring it all together in such a winning concoction. He certainly manages to get some great marks out of his performers, fashioning them into characters who clearly understand their motivations and how all of their stories intertwine.
Naturally, this isn’t to say that the film isn’t without a few blemishes. Some of the wire-fu sequences are perhaps a bit more elaborate than should’ve been staged in a first go-round, but kudos for keeping it ambitious. Also, the period detail is quite good, but it fails in my opinion to rise to the level of being award-winning; for example, much of the period-wear of the main players is constantly too clean to legitimately belong to peasants of the era. Lastly, there’s a necessary reliance on CGI in (thankfully) only a handful of sequences; while the arrangements are also quite good, they’re really only rendered at the level of what some Western and/or European film studios are producing for television, not in big budget motion pictures.
So far as the story is concerned, SWORD rises admirably to the occasion. It might feel a bit overwrought at times, but such is the nature of how these epic tales get told. There are plenty of plot points stuffed in there – honor, humility, compassion, betrayal – and, at times, characters tell audiences how they feel when it would’ve been more organic to show it. In the end, much of what’s explored has to deal with coming to terms with whatever hand life has dealt you. One can accept a cruel fate, but then has to reconcile that acceptance with the corresponding anger. Sadly – as Vu learns – sometimes the only way to achieve a measure of peace is to force oneself to live with it.
SWORD OF THE ASSASSIN (aka BLOOD LETTER)  is produced by Saiga Films. DVD distribution (stateside) is being handled by Epic Pictures. For those needing it spelled out perfectly, this is a Vietnamese-spoken-language release with English subtitles available. (To my knowledge, there is no English-dubbed track.) As for the technical specifications, the film is smartly assembled along with some wonderful high-quality sights and sounds; some of the effects sequences aren’t exactly up-to-par by Western standards, but I didn’t find that it diminished my enjoyment of the film in the slightest. Sadly – as is often the case when these smaller foreign pictures find release on American shores – there are no special features to speak of save the theatrical trailer.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. SWORD OF THE ASSASSIN (aka BLOOD LETTER) may lack some of the finer spit polish of similar Eastern films in the subject matter of epic tales, but its heart is clearly in the right place. Part-fantasy, part-romance, and part-period piece, director Victor Vu maintains a firm grasp on the material, marshaling the creative forces of all involved from its gritty beginning, through its surreal encounters, and up until its big finish. He knows when to let it ruminate and when to let it flourish, and, under his command, his cast delivers a winner.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Epic Pictures provided me with a DVD copy of SWORD OF THE ASSASSIN by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review, and their decision to do so has influenced my estimation in no way, shape, or form.