The best wuxia stories revolve around the balance of potentially conflicting elements, such as action and comedy, love and revenge, or the historical and the fantastical. Su Chao-pin and John Woo’s Reign of Assassins is faithful to this tradition, aiming to evoke the purely escapist pleasures of the wuxia as opposed to the stately art-house aestheticism internationally popularised by Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers (2004). The opening narration establishes that magical powers can be achieved through possession of the remains of the Indian monk Bodhi. Strong belief in this legend entails that various parties want to get their hands on the remains, with one such organisation being the Dark Stone gang, led by the villainous Wheel King (Wang Xueqi). After learning that the remains are with the Prime Minister, they dispatch their most skilled member, Drizzle (Kelly Lin), to steal them, only for her to go rogue to pursue a path of enlightenment when she encounters the monk Wisdom (Li Zonghan). After spending three months under his instruction, Drizzle renounces her ways and visits a surgeon to undergo a face-changing procedure involving poisonous insects, some slicing, and gold thread. Emerging with the new identity of Zeng Jing (Michelle Yeoh), she opens a market stall to sell cloth, then meets messenger Ah-sheng (Jung Woo-sung), whom she marries. But the Dark Stone gang still want the remains and realise that their former member is not far away when Zeng Jing foils a bank robbery, leading to a final showdown.
Although the central storyline of Reign of Assassins is easily summarised, there is actually a lot more going on as sub-plots and supporting characters are thrown into the mix, with time being allocated to the matchmaking efforts of Zheng Jin’s landlady Aunty Cai (Paw Hee-ching) and the training of sex-crazed replacement assassin Turquoise Leaf (Barbie Hsu), while Ah-sheng must accept the fact that his wife was once a ‘big bandit’. Those expecting none-stop action may be surprised by the dramatic stretches in-between the set-pieces, but the combat in Reign of Assassins is superbly choreographed, with the fight at Zen Jing’s home and the climactic battle in a graveyard being the highlights. Most of the moves are accomplished through strenuous stunt work rather than relying on computer enhancement, with dazzling martial arts, sword-play and wire-work on display. The efforts made to establish characters and conflicts before everyone concerned starts wrecking the meticulously designed sets certainly pays-off as the stakes are sufficiently raised for the audience to actually be emotionally involved in the fight scenes, rather than simply marvelling at the sheer technique. Action is executed in an efficient manner, with the elaborate moves being captured by fluid camera movement rather than the now-familiar fast edits or slow-motion flourishes. Yeoh has moved away from martial arts movies in recent years, but does not seem to have any trouble with returning to the demands of a mostly physical role and maintains the charismatic poise that has made her one of the greatest action stars of the past twenty-five years.
While adherence to the traditions of wuxia makes Reign of Assassins immediately recognisable as a genre piece, its production background raises questions concerning national identity and authorship. The wuxia genre is rooted in Chinese literature, but its cinematic heyday was arguably in the Hong Kong cinema of the 1980s and early 1990s. Reign of Assassins, however, is a pan-Asian production, with the $14 million budget provided by Beijing Galloping Horse Film & TV Production and two Taiwanese film funds, while talents from mainland China, Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan are involved both in front of and behind the camera. As such, this is a ‘Hong Kong film’ in story and style, yet removed from the Hong Kong industry in terms of financing structure, while the mainland is now the target audience. It also comes with the unusual director credit, ‘Directed by Su Chao-pin, Co-directed by John Woo’, with Woo insisting that he only provided advice, although it is known that he spent one week shooting a fight scene. As with Tsui Hark’s equally entertaining period piece Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010), this is a not a film that seeks to reinvent the wheel, but instead to preserve the virtues of old-school Hong Kong cinema by applying considerable resources to tried-and-tested material. The wuxia revival is showing no sign of slowing down, and the unpretentious classicism of Reign of Assassins will certainly serve to remind many Asian cinema enthusiasts about why they became so enamoured with the Hong Kong scene.
Reign of Assassins will be shown at the Walter Reade Theater on Saturday, July 9th at 4:00 PM and on Sunday July 10th at 1:00 PM. For tickets, visit the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s NYAFF website here.