Assassins gives martial arts fresh face

Born a decade after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, kungfu thriller Reign of Assassins - co-directed by John Woo and Su Chao-pin - ushers in a new era of the kungfu genre.


Almost all top Chinese directors joined in the wave of period martial arts dramas after Crouching Tiger won global plaudits, but few of the films reached the level of Assassins, which boasts a solid story, an original perspective on martial arts and amazing imagination.

Su, an IT engineer and writer, creates an engaging and solid tale with a science student's logic and prudence.

Michelle Yeoh spearheads a stellar cast as legendary assassin Zeng, who gives up her past to lead a normal life. She undergoes facial surgery and marries a small-town messenger, but her peaceful domesticity is soon interrupted when her former guild finds she keeps a Buddha's remains which have magical functions. What's worse, her beloved husband seems not to be as innocent as he looks.

The story has an intriguing opening: After demonstrating her dazzling kungfu, surgeons transform Zeng's face and she becomes a housewife. It will remind many of Face/Off.

More than 10 characters follow Zeng in front of the camera, each with his or her own traits and convincing motives, pushing forward the plot with their actions rather than lines.

The twist comes in the last third of the film - so dramatic that it could have made the film a joke, but thanks to the successful character-building before, it enhances the film instead, making it pleasantly funny.


The story is about jianghu, or the world of swordsmen. But everybody wants to leave that world, which is original in films of the genre.

Most martial arts stories focus on two things: The revenge for one's father's murder and the scramble for a powerful kungfu guidebook.

But in this film, the heroine wants to be a housewife, the biggest villain wants just a little bit more masculinity and an assassin loves cooking noodles better than killing people.

In addition, the film does not heavily rely on visual effects or bamboo-top fighting, instead, the action sequences are very down-to-earth.

Swordsmen are no longer superheroes flying here and there - they have little dreams as ordinary people. Woo says he chose the script and helped Su cast many A-listers because Assassins is an unusual martial arts story, the focus of which is not hatred or revenge but humanity.

Imaginative details are everywhere and impressive. A surgeon uses bugs to change one's facial features; a reclusive assassin uses her sword techniques when cutting tofu; and a monk has a pair of iron chopsticks as his weapon.

A more stunning scene evolves when a magician uses "the fairy's rope". He throws the rope up to the sky and it just disappears, deep into the clouds. Then the man climbs along the rope and disappears. An arrogant young man wants to show his courage before his friends and follows the magician up the rope. He soon vanishes in the sky, but a moment later his friends find him sitting beside them, naked.

In the jaw-dropping climax, the real function of the Buddha's mysterious remains is revealed.

The film has its flaws. It spends a bit too much time unfolding the romance between Zeng and her husband, and some lines sound funny when they are not supposed to be. But when many recent martial arts films can barely tell a complete story and are hyped only by lavish sets, Assassins stands out as entertaining and special.

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