Well Go USA’s premiere Asian film streamer, Hi-YAH!, will launch Night Of The Assassin on July 21, with an August 8 release on Digital, Blu-ray and DVD.
Kwak Jeong-deok’s feature debut arrives in the U.S. with Night Of The Assassin, a period story set during a tumultuous time where power is up for grabs between anyone seeking it, and willing to hire anyone deadly enough to help get it. Inan (Shin Hyun-joon) is one such person – a fearsome swordsman with skills to match the reputation he’s earned. One fateful night, however, a long-dormant pulmonary illness surfaces, forcing him to seek a healer only to be advised that his next battle could be his last.
A year later, the wayward Inan finds himself roaming a mountain village whereupon after stopping a gang of bandits from harrassing a tavern owner named Seon-hong (Kim Min-kyung), she takes him in for a day of work after feeding him. Inan’s seeming new chance at life is soon cut short when he’s forced to dispense two bandits who crossed an unguarded bridge. Little do he and Seon-hong know, however, that the bandits are part of a larger problem affecting the village, plagued by opium, and a stench of corruption that reaches all the way up to the halls of the local magistrate. Inan is forced to take up arms once again, faced with the most narrow chance of survival he’s ever had against Ibang (Lee Moon-sik) a corrupt official with his own ambitions, backed by an army of desperate bandits with no real leader, and a cabal of elite killers under his employ.
Night Of The Assassin blends dark and gritty with an air of playful comedy throughout its runtime. The film starts off violent enough that it warrants the kind of viewing you’d normally apply to any period swordplay flick. The gore isn’t immediate as the first fight scene sees our main character killing four guards behind a silhouette before nailing his victim. Shortly after, we see a would-be assassin pay the price for getting a little too confident trying to eyeball Inan at swordpoint after a night of pleasure, and she also returns later in full-fledged assassin gear revealing an even bigger twist to her abilities.
The violence and gore ante up quite a bit from there, while a lot of the film’s development between Inan and Seon-hong takes on a more playful tone thanks to the film’s score, and a script that allows for more dimensions with our main characters. Seon-hong’s introduction comes by way of a group of bandits trying to have their way with her, and as Inan paces on by, she tries to get his attention only to have it for a few seconds before he continues walking. When one of the bandits tries to hit her out of frustration, Inan is seen intervening and attempting to dispel the men civilly, only to get thrashed with Seon-hong expressing a few moments later that she “could have taken care of herself.” The story sets in further as we meet Seon-hong’s son, Chil-bok (Lee Ro-woon) who himself dreams of becoming an assassin just like the hero in his favorite novel.
The bond between the trio is purely based on Inan’s ability to work as he needs room and board since a year before when he went on the lam. Their chemistry is less seen however, and more implied at times. At one point Seon-hong and Chil-bok are judging Inan’s from a distance, from talking to tavern patrons to serving food, being able to carry bowls of soup, and even smiling. The rest of Inan’s private time is designated to moments of meditation or introspection, all while albeit managing to keep himself off radar until he suddenly finds himself killing again.
The most intriguing aspect here is seeing how Inan is written with his particular affliction. He can’t fight or he’ll die, and yet when you see him fight, sometimes you’ll see him move in quick motions and try to end the fight as soon as possible. Other times he has no choice but to let loose or his heart will give and he dies. Sometimes the action scenes here allow you to suspend disbelief for a bit, but you can’t help but wonder just when Inan will keel over from all the fighting he’s forced to do. You get a sense that the action directors here chose to spread their wings a bit and allow for some entertainment as you can’t have a period action movie without your lead actor performing action, so it’s interesting to see how the writing gauges Inan’s illness between the fights. The big catch here is that there is an herb that could cure him, although it may or may not exist, and if it does, it lies somewhere up the village mountain where bandits have claimed domain, and all Inan has at his disposal is a sack of temporary treatment that will help carry him at a crucial moment. The healer who gave it to him earlier in the film also told him that if he took too much, his heart could explode, and that adds to the curiousity by the film’s grand action finale.
One other fight scene that takes this aspect of the film to task occurs between Inan and Ibang’s right hand man, Dal-gi (Hong Eun-ki) whose deceitfully handsome looks would garner him a lead role in any swashbuckling sword thriller if his character wasn’t so cold-blooded. Dal-gi is like any other elite swordsman of his time – the best of the best and always eager to test his blade on another’s. As much as Inan’s reputation precedes him, he’s the latest unfortunate target of Dal-gi’s itchy sword, and when it’s time to duel, Dal-gi dares to finish him off in ten moves compared to as many as it will take for Inan to do the same.
Shin’s portrayal here as a Joseon-era killsword is just the latest for me in the years since I’d seen him in Kim Young-joon’s 2000 film, Bichunmoo, the most expensive film South Korean production at the time. The action in Kim’s film takes a page or two from the Wong Jing playbook whereas the action in Night Of The Assassin plays on more contemporary practices whilst remaining grounded in their authenticity, and with Shin clearly putting on his usual best show in familiar territory.
Night Of The Assassin weighs fairly well for Kwak’s first feature-length run as a filmmaker. A good deal of the film’s major components are held until the end while the remainder of the film’s exposition and growth does ample work to provide enough depth to keep our characters interesting without staving too far off into redundancy. You get a nice, lean balance of poignant drama and sprinkles of comedic levity to measure adequately against practical and CG-created blood spillage, loss of limbs, gut stabbings and throat slashings. Moreover, you get a hero worth standing behind in a story of redemption and rebirth, opposite a brilliantly-written villain who eventually gets whats coming.
Native New Yorker. Lover of all things pizza, chocolate, pets, and good friends. Karaoke hero. Left of center. Survivor. Fond supporter of cult, obscure and independent cinema - especially fond of Asian movies and global action cinema. Author of the bi-weekly Hit List. Founder and editor of Film Combat Syndicate. Still, very much, only human.