Thursday, February 03, 2011

Reign of Assassins

Directed by: Su Chao-Pin; John Woo
Produced by: John Woo; Terence Chang
Written by: Su Chao-Pin
Starring: Michelle Yeoh; Jung Woo-sung; Wang Xueqi; Barbie Hsu; Shawn Yue; Kelly Lin; Guo Xiaodong; Jiang Yiyan
Music by: Peter Kam
Cinematography: Horace Wong
Release date(s): September 28, 2010 (China)
Running time: 117 minutes
Country: China; Hong Kong; Taiwan
Language: Mandarin
Budget: $14 million

When you see John Woo’s name as co-director of the film, you know what to expect — a kick ass thrill ride. And you wouldn’t be disappointed, if you liked Face/Off, and for that matter any Woo film.

I mention Face/Off for a purpose, as a particular plot point in the film borrows heavily from the Cage-Travolta film. But then, the entire film is a patchwork of sorts. It borrows from traditional wuxia films — gravity defying martial arts, Shaolin monks, sprinkles of Buddhist philosophy, unrequited love, and insatiable desire for revenge — everything. But, you have no scope for complaints, especially when the presentation is so marvelous, the cinematography, editing first rate, and direction assured and confident. Okay, I agree, the last half-an-hour of the film is so outrageously shameless in revealing one twist after another, and that too with so much exposition, you wonder what was the screenwriter thinking (There’s so much twists that it would rival all Alfred Hitchcock films combined together). On the second thought, however, the film is saved by its smart screenwriting. The film invests a good amount of time establishing the lead characters and when the can of worms is opened, you cannot help but care for the characters.

The film was written as a star vehicle for Michelle Yeoh, and she holds the film from being cartooney and caricature at the outrageous turn of events. Yeoh is always a pleasure to watch, and if the film reminds you of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, it’s not her fault, really.

Set during the Ming Dynasty, the film begins with the legend of an Indian monk, Bodhi, who came to China, mastered the martial arts and died. Now, the myth is that his remains, which were divided into two parts, holds the secrets of martial arts and who possesses the remains will be the master of death. War has been waged for centuries for the mythical mummified body. Now enters a cut-throat group of assassins in the frey. The group, the Dark Stone, which is led by one Wheel King, learns that a part of the remains are with the prime minister. They attack the minister’s house, killing him and his son, Renfeng. In the ensuing melee, one of the gang members, Drizzle, steals the remains and disappear.

On her way out, she meets a Buddhist monk, Wisdom, who tells her that her martial arts skills are not perfect yet, and she must move away from the path of violence. In the ensuing fight, Wisdom sacrifices himself, even as Dizzle realises that he was the love of her life (“I would turn into a stone bridge and endure 500 years of wind and rain...”) (wait for the actual stone bridge at the end of the film) .... Remorseful, she decides to mend her ways. She visits the ancient China equivalent of a plastic surgeon, pays him two bars of gold and changes her face, and so become Michelle Yeoh.

Now, Zeng Jing moves into the city, hides her true identity and skills, and starts a small garment shop. Soon, she is wooed by a bumbling runner, Ah-Sheng, and fending his advances for a long while, she relents and marries him, and the couple lives happily ever after. Well, not really, as the Dark Stone members have been hunting her all these years and they would never stop until they find Drizzle.

One day, while they visit a local bank, they are attacked by a gang of robbers. To save her husband, Zeng Jing invokes her skills as the ruthless assassin and overpowers the bad guys. When she realises that her secret is out, she wants to confess to Ah-Sheng, but he says it does not matter, she is his wife no matter want.

As the news of the bank attack spreads, the Dark Stone members come to know about Drizzle’s whereabout and confront her, despite the fact that she has a different face now. Putting her husband to sleep so that he does not have to go though the ordeal, Drizzle strikes a deal with the Wheel King, she will return the part of the remains of the Bodhi and help the Dark Stone find the other half in exchange of the lives of her and her husband.

Now, as we enter in the third act, all hell breaks lose. Wake up and pay attention, things are not what they seem. I remember, after seeing Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, I mentioned somewhere, that the film contains more plots than there are fish in the sea. Now, Reign of Assassins make the other film look like a one plot love story. I don’t want to spoil things for you, but let me give some hints — the minister’s son, Renfeng, wasn’t dead, there was another “face-change” surgery, someone is an eunuch. And the question remains, will Zeng Jing and Ah-Sheng live happily ever after?

Oh, did I forget to mention the martial art set-pieces? The action sequences are not really worthy of Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of the Flying Daggers), but then, the damands of the plot is also different here. Yet, there are several finely executed sequences, involving the ever-graceful Yeoh, expecially the climatic fight between Drizzle and the Wheel King.

As the film ends, I wonder why can’t the Hindi film industry make a film like this — it has all the masala so intrinsic to a Bollywood film, and so masterfully executed, I wish I had a chance to see the film on the big screen.

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