Set during the Ming dynasty, Su Chao Pin and co-director John Woo’s Reign of Assassins splashes onto the screen in the epic bravado of mythos, setting up the history of the Bodhi Kung Fu discipline; a fight system and martial philosophy developed by the powerful Indian Buddhist Monk Bodhi, who, as the legend tells it, went on a sacred exodus 800 years ago from India to China.
It is said that when Bodhi died, it came to the subject of belief that his remains contained mystical powers, and from there a tradition flourished that whomever held possession of Grandmaster Bodhi’s remains would “rule the martial arts world.”
At the start of the narrative, the last person to possess the remains, thief and assassin Xi Yu/Drizzle (Kelly Lin) of the Dark Stone clan, flees her group and disappears. She sees the renowned plastic surgeon Dr. Li (Shih-Chieh Chin) to change her appearance, and after receiving the council and tutelage of the great monk Lu Zhu “Wisdom” (Zonghan Li), “Hide weakness in deftness.”, she vows to change her life and permanently leave behind her murderous and duplicitous ways. Only, she disappears with half of Bodhi’s remains.
Fast forward to the future, which a caption tells us is “some years later”. Xi Yu is now Zeng Jing (Michelle Yeoh) a married and humble woman. When she is forced to reveal her fighting prowess while defending her husband Jiang Ah-sheng (Jung Woo-sung) against, excuse me, some serious mutherfuckers, it alerts the attention of the leader of her old clan, Cao Feng, “the Wheel King” (Xueqi Wang). This is when things get dicey.
Zeng Jing and Jiang Ah-sheng are set upon by the Dark Stone clan. Cao Feng offers a deal; give us the half of the corpse that you have and help us retrieve the other, do this and you and your husband are free. “We are even,” the Wheel King promises. But you can almost smell the deception in him through the screen. This is not a bad thing. The acting, you’re being deliberately led down a path. What path? I won’t spoil it. But I will say this. The team Cao Feng assembles to assist Zeng Jing on her mission comes with a pomp and circumstance that would give the Avengers a new secret to keep; jealousy within the ranks. There’s Ye Zhanqing “Turquoise” (Barbie Hsu), the “Magician” Lian Sheng (Leon Dia), and Lei Bin (Shawn Yue).
The fight scenes this motley crew of characters provide alone are worth the film’s runtime. They’re assassins, and fight like it. Lots of aggression and close quarter contact. Projectile weaponry, and very, very fast movements-each technique designed not to maim but kill!
This is one of the more exciting films I’ve seen in recent months, with very satisfying action set pieces and frenetic scenarios to keep you on the edge of your seat. You expect nothing less anyway from Maestro Woo, having returned to his native market to do films the way he does them best; that is, absent the meddling of a Hollywood studio.
Of course, this is not to overshadow Su Chao Pin, for sure. After all, his name is mentioned above first for a reason. And while the Woo influence is felt, the best thing that can be said about Reign of Assassins is that there’s excellence in the balance between drama and action. The story is crisp and keeps you guessing. And, man, the fights!! Enough cannot be said about quality of the fights. Which, it bears mention, is a lot coming from me – a card-carrying “Sometimes Fan” of the wuxia subgenre of martial arts filmmaking.
There is a turning point in the film, after the Dark Stone clan has acquired the parts, Zeng Jing effectively completing her task, when there is a betrayal within Cho’s crew that gets everyone fighting each other. The small army of cinematographers, led by Horace Wong, justify their excess here and beyond. Cho makes quick work as a leader should, Jing proves that she’s still got it, the Magician lives up to his name, other characters reveal that Jing isn’t the only one keen at keeping secrets! It’s an operatic exercise of love for the martial arts, for wuxia, and for the narrative being displayed on screen.
The big surprise of the movie is that Michelle Yeoh is not leagues beyond her co-stars in talent. Everyone holds their own well. And when Yeoh is not on screen, some of the most insane and awe inspiring moments of swordplay are cast before our eyes with, thankfully, no filter of weird shaky cam experimenting. Instead, everything we see is photographed with confidence and cool. The camera allows rather than imposes, and the stunts are honored in this way – an on-screen bow to Adam Chung-Chan’s stunt coordination and Wei Tung on the fights.
There’s a love story in a this movie, but not an oversaturation of it. There’s drama, but none of it the all but coveted mellow type. There’s betrayal, but not a study of Shakespearean archetypes (or a drawing from them either). The story, while familiar, is fresh.
The characters, compelling. And baby, it is always a pleasure to behold ambition in martial arts cinema!
In the end, without spoiling anything, the theme taking the spotlight has to do with honor. It reminds of the interplay between Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004). While it’s arguable that those films are, respectively, masculine and feminine discussions of the topic, Reign of Assassins arrives, with precision on contact, as an amalgam of both these conversations.
If it were a conversation aired on an old timey radio show, I’d still tune in. –Khalil Barnett