It’s 198 B.C., and Chancellor Cao Cao (Chow Yun Fat) is the true power behind the emperor, who himself is merely an incompetent and weak puppet who only plays the role. Cao Cao was the warrior who defeated Lu Bu, the most powerful warrior among those who would take down the emperor, instilling fear in all the other warlords. Cao Cao is the king of Wei, and lives there with his son, Chao Pi, who loves his father and wants him to kill the emperor and take over. Tired of war and death, he only wants to put it all behind him, and to see the people, not just in his kingdom, but in all of China prosper and live at peace. Unfortunately, his enemies, and those jealous of his power, have other plans for him.
In the first part of the film, we see a bunch of young people rounded up and taken off to some idolated cave where they’re forced to spend ten years training to be assassins. Young lovers Ling Ju and Mu Shun are also captured and forced to train. They don’t know why, or what their purpose is until the training is over. The ultimate purpose of their training is to kill Cao Cao. To that end, once the training is over, Ling Ju and Mu Shun are separated. She is sent to be Cao’s woman, and Mu Shun is turned into a eunich and made to serve elsewhere. Still deeply in love, because of this, their love can never be fulfilled. As the movie progresses, Ling Ju becomes less and less certain of her mission. Originally told what a monster Cao Cao is, and that the people wanted him dead, she learns of his true nature, and becomes torn. She sees him for the good man that he is, and yet she is bound by duty to kill him. She also holds a secret that Cao Cao recognized right away, but that is not understood by her until near the end of the film.
There are more aspects to the film than what I’ve presented here, but this will at least give you some idea what it’s about.
Seems as though the Chinese film market has been puning out a lot of films lately based on historical people and places. The Assassins is yet another such film. I have a friend who thinks that these kinds of films are what’s wrong with Chinese cinema right now. While I do agree that too many such films seem to be flowing out of China nowadays, I don’t know if I agree fully that it’s become a problem, at least not as of yet. While there may be this patriotic subtext to many of these types of films, they also tend to be rather stunning visually and more often than not, are at least passably entertaining. Still, I miss the old style kung fu action films of days gone by, and I miss the more entertaining, and comedic style of films, which I find to be, while often not as visually impressive, far more entertaining.
These historical dramas are often buried under their own drama and intrigue. So much so in fact, that it becomes oppressive from the standpoint of the viewer. In the end, you wind up feeling like you just watched something great, but didn’t really enjoy it all that much because of the depressing heaviness that weighs down the story. You watch a film like this, and then compare it with a film like Tai Chi Zero (also from Well Go USA and reviewed in this issue), and they’re really like night and day. This film is heavy and super dramatic, while Tai Chi Zero is light, fun, entertaining and just as visually impressive. Given the choice, I don’t think anyone would fail to choose the latter over the former.
One of the biggest problems with this film is that there were just too many characters, and too many people who wanted to kill Cao Cao. At one point, late in the film, I literally said out loud to my wife, who was watching the film with me, "So who the hell are these guys now???". All of a sudden, a whole new batch of guys came out of the woodwork to kill him. Then those guys teamed up with the assassins, and earlier on, there was a whole other batch of assassins who tried to kill him, and it was all just a big, confusing mess. By the time you reach the end of the film, it all sort of comes together and makes more sense, but getting to that destination of clarity can be a rather confusing trip at times.
Visually stunning and full of fine acting and great action, The Assassins is a rather good film, yet as stated above, does suffer from some issues that may hinder one’s enjoyment of it. I think in this case it will come down to the viewer. I can’t say it was one of my favorite films, but considering all the various arcs of intrigue we encounter in this film, I think the story held together as well as can be expected. There was an event at the end, which I won’t reveal here, that didn’t make any sense to me, but in general, I enjoyed the film and can recommend it, especially to those who appreciate these historical type dramas.
For special features, this release contains a behind the scenes featurette, and the film’s trailer.
If you’d like to find out more about this film, you can visit its page on the Well Go USA website here, and if you’d like to pick up a copy for yourself, you can get the DVD or blu-ray from Amazon, or from any of the other usual outlets.