Ten years ago, Lee Ang’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” breathed new life into the ‘wuxia’ genre and opened up the world of Chinese cinema to mainstream Western audiences. Had “Reign of Assassins” arrived ten years earlier, it could have very well have achieved the same groundbreaking success as Lee Ang’s classic, for make no mistake- this dazzling martial arts epic ranks among one of the best of its kind.
In writer/director Su Chao-Pin’s ancient China- as told over an enchanting animated sequence- there are different sects of assassins after the ancient remains of a mystical Indian monk. Among the most deadly are a squad known as the Dark Stone, led by the formidable and distinctively raspy-voiced Wheel King (Wang Xueqi). Drizzle (Kelly Lin) is the most powerful member of the squad, but she has had enough of her life of killing and goes under the knife to emerge as Zeng Jing (Michelle Yeoh).
Just the names of the characters will do well to convince you that this is pure fantasy, but while the world may be make-believe, the characters within them are firmly grounded. Su’s script takes its time in the first hour to set up the romance between Zeng Jing and messenger boy Jiang Ah-Sheng (Korean star Jung Woo-sung)- their courtship unfolding with a gentle touch of humour and more than a hint of the film’s title – as well as their subsequent married life. Audiences waiting for some action will have to be a bit more patient, as Su wants his audience to get to know his characters well and gives them time to grow on you.
It is almost a good hour into the film by the time Wheel King and his gang of assassins- Lei Bin (Shawn Yue), the Magician (Leon Dai) and Zhan Qing (Barbie Hsu)- track down Zeng Jing on their quest to find the remains. Yet the care and attention to detail that Su pays to each one of his characters pays off beautifully in the second half. Refusing to cast his characters as black-and-white heroes and villains, Su gives each a back-story that blends slickly into the various circumstances the plot throws them into. And in between the balletic action choreographed by Hong Kong’s Tung Wai, Su draws on the relationships among the various characters for some intriguing drama- especially the dynamics between Zeng Jing, Wheel King and his three fellow assassins.
It is this tight characterisation that holds the second half of the film together. While the plot in the first half may seem “Mr and Mrs Smith” simplistic in its portrayal of a married couple unaware of the other’s past, the second half of the film is anything but. Unfolding with twists and turns, it builds on an engaging first hour to become even more absorbing, culminating in a breathtaking and ultimately touching emotional finish that reaffirms the power of love to overcome hatred and vengeance and self-sacrifice.
Though Su’s film is heavy on drama, it also delivers on the action where it matters. Tung Wai avoids any pretentious visual effects in favour of old-school wire-ful swordplay in all its grace and poeticism- though he does use modern-day technology to throw in some nifty moves like bending swords and flying needles in slo-mo. The very first confrontation between Zeng and her enemies in her house is enough to set your pulse racing, and Tung Wai tops that with another equally, if not more, thrilling fight in her house later on and a two-way fight in an open courtyard. Su is less of a director of action films (his filmography reads the 2002 comedy “Better than Sex” and the 2006 horror film “Silk”), so the fact that the action sequences in here have turned out well must have been due in part to producer John Woo’s participation as co-director.
Woo’s involvement has also ensured the excellent cast assembled here. Michelle Yeoh’s role in this film is a welcome return to form for the actress that has not had such a meaty role tailor-made for her since Lee Ang’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”. Her natural beauty and elegance complements Zeng Jing’s graceful assassin perfectly and serves as a good foil against co-star Jung Woo-sung’s rugged handsomeness. Yeoh and Jung also share great chemistry, and it is firmly to their credit that the film ends on a deeply poignant note.
Like the best of its genre, “Reign of Assassins” has all the ingredients for a modern-day ‘wuxia’ classic- tight characterisation, compelling drama and exciting action topped with fantasy elements. Su Chao-pin and John Woo have created a genre classic ten years after Lee Ang’s masterpiece and it is a thrilling and poignant experience worthy of the best martial arts epics.
Review by moviexclusive