The Lady Assassin (Vietnam, 2013)
The first 3D martial arts film to emerge from Vietnam’s studio system, Nguyen Quang Dung’s highly enjoyable The Lady Assassin shattered local box office records and looks set to become a DVD favorite in the West where its exotic approach to action will surely be welcomed by curious genre aficionados. Events take place around the Duong Son Tavern, a shoreline establishment that is run by gorgeous proprietress Kieu Thi (Thanh Hang). While it looks like the ideal place for wealthy travellers to unwind, the tavern is actually a trap as Kiue Thi’s seductive staff – Dao Thi (Ngoc Quyen), Lieu Thi (Kim Dung), and MaI Thi (Diem My) – have been trained to kill by their master to relieve these guests of their spoils. After dispatching a group of bandits, they open the coffin that their unwitting victims have been carrying to discover the bound and gagged Linh Lan (Tang Thanh Ha). The young woman insists that she is a captive of evil general Quan Du (Le Thai Hoa), who murdered her family. Kieu Thi decides to put Linh Lan to work and prepares her for a revenge mission through a variety of training exercises that range from games of kick volleyball, to fishing with a spear, to cleaning the tavern while suspended from a rope. Petty rivalries are evident between the deadly hostesses but they are seemingly united by a hatred of men, and usually resolve any differences in time for their communal bathing session.
The Lady Assassin is splendidly shot by Nguyn Trinh Hoan whose eye-popping compositions recall the Shaw Brothers wuxia output in its prime. Alongside the stunning backdrop of its remote location, the five leading ladies wear striking color-coded dresses throughout while pulling off wire-assisted physical feats without getting a pretty hair out of place. These feisty assassins are given just enough personality and backstory to be distinctive within the Nguyen’s evident mandate to deliver crowd-pleasing escapism that keeps potential emotional tangents in check: Dao Thi is sharp-tongued, the dexterous Lieu Thi is a former circus performer, and Mai Thi was once a mistress. There is a sub-plot concerning Dao Thi’s secret relationship with goatherd Duong Linh (Anh Khoa) which almost causes her to pay a severe price for betraying the Sapphic code of the organization, while her suitor may not be as harmless or humble as he initially appears. However, the most palpable dynamic is between Kieu Thi and Lihn Lan, especially when the former teaches the latter how to be an effective seductress. With its sun-drenched setting, not to mention the jovial and entirely non-judgmental manner in which Nguyn handles the frequent massacres of the tavern’s customers, The Lady Assassin sometimes plays more like an aesthetically heightened holiday fantasy, particularly when the director throws in a shimmering musical number.
In terms of its action scenes, there is nothing here to challenge the classics of the genre and some of the quick edits fail to disguise the limitations of its cast. However, the combat is always coherent and nicely cut to the jaunty score, with some of the obvious 3D moments still raising a chuckle when stripped of the extra dimension. There are some awkward shifts in tone as the film goes from light-hearted romp, to tearful melodrama, to bloody tragedy in the course of a trim 90 minutes, while the final confrontation with Quan Du and his masked henchmen is somewhat conventional after the eccentric training regime that has preceded it. This is a strange revenge tale that almost forgets about its villain, with Quan Du an unseen presence until he turns up in the final reel having been forced to make the trip to the tavern as the five assassins are having too much fun by the beach to actually hunt him down. Despite the lack of sufficient build-up for his antagonist, Le Thai Hoa manages to cut a fairly imposing figure with his armour and wicked grin, while a three-way duel with Kieu Thi and Lihn Lan gives him the chance to show off some moves. A vibrant sign that Vietnam’s commercial sector is progressing in leaps and bounds, The Lady Assassin is unpretentious entertainment of the highest order, a cheeky spin on wuxia tropes that also excels as a sword-wielding celebration of sisterhood.