10:13 - 14th November 2013, by Calum Waddell


Beginning in the 14th year of Sian'an (just before the end of the Han Dynasty in 214AD), during what is labelled 'the season of great freeze', The Assassins is certainly a lot easier to follow than many of the Mandarin-language period epics we have been seeing of late. In actual fact, this outing begins a little like 2002's category III oddity Naked Weapon: with a group of young women being imprisoned for years and trained in the fine art of murder. The goal of their eventual extermination is Cao Cao (Chow Yun Fat) - a warlord and chancellor who imposes great fear upon his enemies.

One lady stands out from the rest - a beautiful woman called Lingju, who grows up into the alluring image of actress Liu Yifei (also seen in this month's The Four, but a familiar face from The Forbidden Kingdom and the 2011 Chinese Ghost Story remake). She becomes friendly with a young man called Mu Shun (Hiroshi Tamaki) but, unfortunately for him, he has his penis lopped off so he can join the Emperor's collection of eunuchs.

In the ultimate indignation, his member is then fed to a hungry dog by a nonchalant middle aged woman (whose profession appears to be the messy removal of male appendages). Obviously physical love is not going to happen between the two, and this only strengthens Lingju's desire to get close to Cao Cao and carry out his untimely murder. "Everything they put us through was to kill one man," she reasons. "The most powerful man in the world..."

Inevitably, though, when our lady finally does get to experience the royal quarters, a full ten years after her training began, she finds herself discovering a new side to the seemingly barbaric chancellor. At first she is horrified by the punishment that the Empire dishes out, such as a man being quartered by horses as an enthusiastic crowd reacts in favour. Then, despite baying for the warlord's blood, she becomes pessimistic at the very notion of dishing out death to a man in such a lofty position of power. When an invading army, for instance, is quickly brought to their knees, she ponders how on earth a single woman can enact an assassination when the odds are this great against her?

There may well be some meditation upon the current role of a tyrannical government, formed for the majority by the minority, in this movie, but - if so - it is not developed enough to warrant commentary.

More to the point - as Chow begins to show his soft side, she enters into a conflict of emotion. "I don't trust anyone," admits the chancellor. He explains that anyone can take him out at anytime - so his ruthlessness is part and parcel of the job. Yet, after admiring a deer but then shooting it with an arrow (meeting with the remark, "If you love something do you always have to kill it?"), the leader indicates a surprisingly warm heart. He proceeds to build his favourite femme a deer park within the walls of his fortress. As such, with conflicted feelings (and hormones), Lingju has a tough decision to make - and, rest assured, The Assassins does not end on a note that one is likely to predict.

As the Chinese film industry has boomed, big, sweeping, historical dramas such as this have become very profitable. Many of them are snore-inducing, but The Assassins is one of the better examples of the trend. A lot of this has to do with Chow Yun Fat, who really does deserve better roles than he has been getting in recent years. Once considered the coolest actor on the planet - thanks to his heroic bloodshed classics such as City on Fire (1987), The Killer (1989) and Hard Boiled (1992) - the performer has evidenced a desire for fresh thespian challenges in films that include Confucius (2010) and the comical Let the Bullets Fly (2010).

Unfortunately, whilst Yun Fat can almost always be counted on to deliver a great screen turn; there is always the nagging feeling that the great man deserves much better. The Assassins certainly does not really quench this thought - but Yun Fat is fantastic and it is this, above all else, that allows the movie to flow quite easily from start to finish.

Spectacle, inevitably, is also a big part of these pictures - and there is plenty on offer here. Lavish CGI landscapes mix with bloody battles and the costumes are every bit as grand as you would anticipate. The Assassins certainly provides plenty of eye candy and evokes the mystery and malevolence of ancient China. All in all, it delivers a nice pictorial representation of a time long gone, and the production values are first class throughout.

Nevertheless, after sitting through so many of these motion pictures - from The Warlords (2007) to An Empress and the Warriors (2007) and from Three Kingdoms (2009) to 14 Blades (2010), fatigue has really set in. By way of its cast, and its comparably straightforward plotting, The Assassins is a solid enough swashbuckler to pass time with. But, in all honestly, these cinematic history lessons are starting to become very similar to one another - and that is surely a sign that the genre needs to be assassinated in its own right.

An above-average, and very slickly made, look at love and lacerations in an ancient kingdom.
SCORE: 3/5
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