Monday, 5 October 2015

Film Review - 'Reign of Assassins'





As the opening narration in director Su Chao-pin's wuxia epic, Reign of Assassins, tells us, Buddhism was originally brought to China, long ago, by an Indian monk named Bhodi. While that monk is, naturally, long dead by the time the film begins, it is still believed that his remains can be a source of supernatural power for whoever happens to possess them.

A group of dangerous assassins, known as the Dark Stone clan, seek to acquire the monk's mummified remains on behalf of their leader, called the Wheel King (Wang Xueqi) - who wants the power it offers for his own mysterious, and no doubt sinister, purpose. But, it seems that one member of the Dark Stone clan, a young woman called Drizzle (Kelly Lin), may have plans of her own.

After an encounter with a Buddhist monk, though, Drizzle finds herself moved to leave her life of violence and death behind - betraying her former comrades, stealing Bodhi's mummified remains, and fleeing.

Undergoing a procedure to change her appearance, Drizzle (now played by Michelle Yeoh), taking the name Zeng Jing, hopes to begin a new life in a small town far from the reach of her former comrades. There, she meets Ar-sheng (Jung Woo-sung), a young man who works as a messenger - the two eventually falling in love, and marrying. Of course, the Wheel King isn't willing to just let her go (especially not Bodhi's remains, which he had invested so much into recovering) - and, it seems inevitable that her past will eventually catch up to her.

To it's credit, Reign of Assassins is not purely a straight-forward action film - though, of course, it is still a film with more than its fair share of action scenes. It is also a film that is quite willing to slow things down, and to give us time to actually get to know the characters. There are many moments of humour to be found in Zeng Jing's attempt to create a new life for herself. We have a meddling, but well-meaning, land-lady determined to find Zeng Jing a husband by rounding up every single loser in town. There's also Ar-sheng's endearingly awkward attempts at flirtation, and Zeng Jing's bemused reaction.

In these scenes, it actually starts to feel like an entirely different film - like we're watching some sort of period piece/romantic comedy rather than a wuxia film. Oddly enough, though, the blending of genres actually works, here. The moments of humour found in the first days of Zeng Jing's new life provide a stark contrast to the action and violence of the rest of the film. When Reign of Assassins makes its inevitable return to wuxia-style action, it feels like something genuinely tragic - because it means that the new life that Zeng Jing had hoped to build for herself is, essentially, over. Also, the fact that the woman in question, during the romantic comedy portion of the film, is actually an extremely dangerous former assassin somehow just makes the whole situation funnier.

Unfortunately, moments of romantic drama between Zeng Jing and Ar-sheng aren't quite as effective. Michelle Yeoh and Jung Woo-sung do just fine as two people awkwardly circling around each other - but, they don't quite have the chemistry to be entirely convincing as a couple in love.

The best parts of Reign of Assassins, though (as you might expect from a wuxia film), are its action sequences. Seriously, they're fantastic. A combination of talented performers and some impressive, and often very creative, choreography. Whether it's the Magician's outlandish tricks, Drizzle's skilled use of a sword with a flexible blade, or even straight-forward displays of martial arts skill, every action sequence in the film is genuinely exciting, and very entertaining. And, the balance that the film is able to find between humour, drama, and action makes them stand out even more - because, they aren't allowed to overwhelm the film.

The film does get a bit silly, at times, unfortunately. Your own mileage may vary, of course - but certain plot points, such as a procedure for altering your appearance that involves allowing bugs to eat the bones in your face, stretched my ability to suspend my disbelief a bit too far (honestly, at times like this, I probably would have preferred it if the writers had just went for an 'it's magic' explanation). And, of course, the whole idea that a person could be granted supernatural power by a mummified corpse might be a bit of a stretch for some, too - though, to be honest, this one didn't bother me much, personally. But, the Wheel King's ultimate motivation, when it is finally revealed to the audience, is truly absurd - the type of thing that turns a previously effective and intimidating villain into something of a joke. There were many little points like this in the film, unfortunately - elements of the plot that had me rolling my eyes a bit, and which undermined everything that the film did right. Not to the extent that I was incapable of enjoying Reign of Assassins, of course - but, still enough to detract something from the experience.

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