Anime Reporter returns once more to the world of live-action cinema for our take on The Assassins, Zhao Lin-Shan’s directorial debut and a stunning tale of war, deceit, love and death.
The Assassins takes place in China towards the end of the Han dynasty (in the early 200’s AD) and details the political unrest and conflict of the time. The film starts with the tale of Lingju, a young girl orphaned by war and taken captive with dozens of others to be trained as killers. There, Lingju finds comfort from only one person, fellow captive Mu Shun, an optimistic boy who dreams of peace and freedom. Over ten cruel years they are worked and trained with the aim of killing just one person; Cao Cao (Chow Yun Fat of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon acclaim), the King of Wei, whose respect and power threatened the throne of emperor Xian of Han, a foolish and unstable emperor (Alec Su of The Message). An adult Lingju (Liu Yifei, The Four) is brought to serve as Cao Cao’s mistress and waits for her moment to strike, while all around her, plots and betrayal weave carefully around the emperor. Unsure even of who is pulling her strings or why she should care if Cao Cao lives or dies, Lingju is soon trapped in a world where any mistake could cost her life. Meanwhile, a more pessimistic Mu Shun is placed among the emperor’s eunuchs after receiving the appropriate alterations for the post and the two are torn between their fear of failure and their desires to escape and be free.
This film is a fine piece of historical drama, sowing tension and intrigue into each scene without stretching the narrative beyond belief. Chow Yun Fat plays the part of Cao Cao exquisitely, facing down his adversaries and playing the imperial court like a very fine fiddle, while several other characters plot his downfall or ascension to the throne. Alec Su walks a wonderful line between paranoid fool and chuckling child, creating a character both pitiful and deplorable at the same time. Overall, the entire cast performs admirably, boasting a rich emotional range throughout. Qiu Xinzhi in particular deserves praise for his portrayal of Cao Pi, Cao Cao’s son whose motives seem to change with the wind.
With plots and intrigue hidden in every shadow, drama is much more predominant than action, though action sequences themselves are violent and intense, boasting the occasional slow motion blood spatter and wire assisted long- distance leap but steering well clear of the levels of over-choreographing seen in that other Chow Yun Fat movie (You know the one I mean. It had pirates). This does at times feel like a very violent movie where the camera happens to be facing slightly away from most of the action or a particularly violent historical drama, with the two notions vying for supremacy throughout. Action sequences are brief, avoiding the pitfall of violence replacing actual narrative.
From the start, Zhao Hiao Ding’s (Principle Cinematographer) work screams for praise. Scenes and landscapes are both natural and beautiful, with special effects being utilized, when necessary, with great attention to detail and subtlety. Interior scenes are also masterfully shot, with suspense and love conveyed as much from camera work as from the actors’ portrayals. Each scene feels authentic and rich, particularly crowd scenes which benefit from detailed and eye catching costume designs.
The Assassins is not quite a martial arts movie. Instead, it sits proudly as a damned good drama, with plenty of intrigue and suspense and just enough action to keep viewers guessing.
The Assassins is currently available on DVD and Bluray.
78% – “Thrilling”
The Assassins is a tale of intrigue, betrayal and murder. Not your typical action movie, watch this film very closely.