Since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon hit big back in 2000 and unexpectedly crossed over into the mainstream thanks to director Ang Lee’s artful approach, the Wuxia sub genre of Asian action flicks has been in kind of a funk.
Director Zhang Yimou brought it further into the public consciousness with his visually stunning films Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Now it seems that every Wuxia movie that comes along now has one eye on the art-house rather than both eyes on entertainment. Reign of Assassins redresses the balance somewhat because it’s the most fun Wuxia movie for a long time.
We learn in an animated beginning that the body of Buddhist kung fu master Bodhi is said to grant whoever possesses it ultimate power and since his death it has been fought over by several different gangs, schools and groups of assassins. We then meet young and deadly Zeng Jing who works for the league of assassins known as Dark Stone. Jing kills a man of peace in her quest for Bodhi’s remains and is haunted by it. She then decides to give up her life of violence and has reconstructive surgery so that she looks completely different. Some years later and Jing looks like Michelle Yeoh and lives in a small and peaceful town and gets married to a simple man named Sheng (Jung Woo Sung). Dark Stone soon arrives at the town though, still looking for Bodhi after all these years and their presence threatens Jing’s new life and she is forced into violence again. Secret identities are revealed, loyalties shift and the assassins battle their way through a once peaceful town.
Reign of Assassins has a tad more swagger than your typical Wuxia film which gets released over here. There are the usual floppy swords, funky pyjamas and wonderfully named characters but here the emphasis is on fun and things that look cool as well as twists and turns right out of a soap opera. The film is directed by Chao Bin Su and co-directed by John Woo. Maybe Woo’s presence gave Su some kind of confidence he needed because though the plot is ludicrous it’s done completely straight-faced and thanks to the strong performances and solid action scenes you become invested in it too.
You would think that the co-director credit to Woo would mean that the action scenes were filmed in the slow motion and influential style that he has become famous for. Not so. His presence barely registers apart from one or two shots involving flying needles. The action scenes are all shot pretty well with quick cuts and moves happening fast rather than slowing down so you can observe the choreography in typical Woo fashion. The film is a bit more exploitative than typical Wuxia with some blood and nudity on display and the characters have actual character rather than being the po-faced and weary warriors that are now so familiar. As the plot progresses the reveals that occur regarding certain characters get more and more ridiculous (the skill of ancient Chinese plastic surgeons for one) but never fail to entertain. The first hour is so solid and so well done that by the time the plot starts twisting it hardly matters because you are so swept up in the whole thing.
It’s always a pleasure to watch Michelle Yeoh, as she is so versatile you never quite know what she will pop up in next and seeing her rise to any challenge is wonderful. Here she is back in familiar territory and although the film’s focus is on entertainment she still puts in some good work with her sparkle in full effect. It’s also good to see Jung Woo Sung back on the screen after The Good, The Bad, The Weird with another star making turn with the charisma he showed in that film still present.
Although the locations and politics may have changed a lot in the production of these sorts of films, Reign of Assassins is great fun and a refreshing reminder of what Hong Kong cinema used to be all about. Hopefully the film’s success will change direction for these kinds of period action flicks and we can expect more of an emphasis on entertainment than the art crowd in the future.