ReviewWriter: Elaine EweWriter Ratings:Overall: Cast: Plot: Effects: Cinematography: Watch this if you liked:
“Curse Of The Golden Flower”
The lack of a Wikipedia entry for director Zhao Lin Shan may very well be a testament to the director's talents, or lack thereof, seeing the mess that is "The Assassins". The alternately melodramatic and comic Chinese historical drama film fails to buoy viewers, but nevertheless manages to stay afloat due to a powerful performance that is characteristic of veteran actor Chow Yun Fat.
Set between the late 190s and 200s during the Eastern Han Dynasty, the film tells the story of Cao Cao, a Chancellor in the court and a man much too powerful in his own right. His defeat of Lü Bu and other rival warlords to gain supremacy in northern China renders him a potential traitor to the Emperor Xian, whose only talents seem to be behaving like a eunuch and singing. Not only that, in 216, Cao Cao forced the monarch to grant him the title of a vassal king, "King of Wei", and had the Bronze Sparrow Platform constructed as a display of power. As a result, children who are orphaned by Cao Cao are kidnapped to undergo years of training as assassins underground, to prepare for a day when Cao Cao is to be killed to ensure that Emperor Xian stays in power.
In writing, the film seems like the usual, run-of-the-mill historical drama not unlike Zhang Yimou's "Curse Of The Golden Flower", which also stars Chow Yun Fat, but unfortunately, it is not so. Instead, Zhao Linshan chooses to spin the tale of "The Assassins" as convoluted as possible, while subtly hinting at side plots which he then chooses not to explore, such as Ling Ju's conflicted feelings for the two men. As if that is not enough, the film is narrated by Ling Ju (Liu Yifei), whose musings on life and romance have almost nothing to do with the events that are happening. She is merely there to provide the film with a thought-provoking agenda. At one point, she mentions that the people's reactions to Cao Cao are not what she has come to expect and sadly voices her doubt on whether she could carry out her mission. In another she remarks that if whole generations have failed to bring down Cao Cao, what is one woman capable of? It would have worked if an event or action takes place in relation to her musings, but this is a lumbering movie that pushes obvious buttons and manipulates the audience's emotional investment while never getting the point across.
Even more objectionable is Zhao Lin Shan's treatment of rape. In one of the early scenes, after Mu Shun (Hiroshi Tamaki) fights for his lady love, Ling Ju, and is wounded, he deigns to feel her up to further prove his affections without her consent, only to reluctantly cease after much struggle. However, towards the end, Ling Ju confesses that she regrets for not allowing him to 'rape' her.
This is also another one of those movies where actors of other ethnicity are cast only for them to be side-lined. In this case it is Japanese actor Hiroshi Tamaki. With films like "Waterboys", "Nodame Cantabile" and "Tada, Kimi o Aishiteru", it is clear that the man can act, but he is given a muted role, and quite literally at that. The absurd idea that they can make it through the whole film by dubbing over his voice with another and rationalising it by turning him into a eunuch is just one of the film's condescending movie conceits. One more is casting a Japanese actor at all in the film only to put him through one tragedy after another.
The heavy-handed plot contrivances would go down a lot more easily if the central characters were remotely engaging, but no one is save for Chow Yun Fat. He may not have demonstrated a tour de force here, but the actor single-handedly balances the weight on his shoulder, which is the only reason anyone would be able to sit through this film intact. The scenes where he questions his son and where he wakes up to one of his nightmares give us a glimpse of what the actor is capable of, thus, this is a particularly unhappy use of Chow Yun Fat's considerable talents, especially following his praiseworthy acting in the action crime drama film "Let The Bullets Fly".
Cinematography-wise, the actions scenes seem a little off, but Zhao Linshan does what he can. Taking his cue from the stylized cinematography that is known to Chinese filmmakers, such as slow-motion effects and strikingly coloured garbs amid bleak scenery, it is not so much as highlighting the action scenes as opposed to obscuring them for reasons unknown, but we do not notice them so much as we are equally blinded by our need to get to the end of the plodding narrative.
The bottom line is, "The Assassins" is a tedious and tortuous piece of work. It is not for those who like their historical drama cinema highly stylised and emotionally resonant like Zhang Yimou or Wong Kar-wai, or who might be frustrated by the slow-moving narrative and inconsistent characters as they try sort out their roles in the Shakespearean tragedy. Chow Yun Fat proves that he is easily one of Hong Kong leading men by succeeding in imbuing the tyrant Cao Cao with a sympathetic nature, fluidly shifting between fearsomeness and helplessness yet never stops commanding presence.Cinema Online, 04 October 2012