(China/Hong Kong) Directed by Su Chao-pin, John Woo. Starring Michelle Yeoh, Jung Woo-sung, Wang Xueqi, Barbie Hsu, Kelly Lin, Shawn Yue. Category IIA.
“Reign of Assassins” is not a typical John Woo movie. Actually, judging from the fact that there are no pigeons in this film, we know he has little to do with the directing. It is not a typical martial arts movie either. In young Taiwanese writer-director Su Chao-pin’s (“Silk,” “Double Vision”) ancient China, which is filled with world-class assassins played by Asian superstars, there’s a little humanitarianism and Zen Buddhism from our traditional roots, and a little bad taste and a quirky sense of humor from our pop culture. The final stew may have a plot with too many “lucky coincidences” and an unclear focus, but it’s still a tasty one.
The film opens with a brief animated premise depicting a Buddhist monk arriving in China and becoming a martial arts master. After his death, assassins from all over the country begin fighting over his remains, which are believed to contain the secret of supreme power and the ability to rule the martial arts world. The Dark Stone Gang, led by the Wheel King (Wang Xueqi, most of the time with his face veiled) together with its most ruthless assassin, Drizzle (Kelly Lin), is one of the main groups involved. After killing a minister and his son, Drizzle gets half of the remains and suddenly flees from her evil organization. She meets monk Wisdom along the way, who loves her so much that he sacrifices himself in exchange for her repentance.
Now the real story begins. Drizzle goes to a surgeon for a different face and changes her name to Zeng Jing (Michelle Yeoh). Leaving her past behind, she opens a cloth stall and attracts the attention of delivery boy Jiang A-sheng (Korean hottie Jung Woo-sung), an adorable and innocent doofus who doesn’t have a clue about his love interest’s deadly abilities. But just when we relax into their funny courtship and peaceful married life, the Wheel King tracks down his former employee and recruits top killers Lei Bin (Shawn Yue), Turquoise (Barbie Hsu) and the Magician (Leon Dai), to gain possession of the remains. However, it turns out everyone has been too indulgent of their own wishful thinking to figure out everyone else’s secret plans, so the rest of the story is all surprises as the plot unfolds.
Though imperfect and not particularly original, Su’s story sounds fairly plausible within its own realm of fantasy (you can’t ask for more when the premise of the story involves a magical corpse). Famous for his script-crafting skills, Su displays his talents yet again in “Assassins” with detailed plotlines and humorous convos without trying too hard. But his best achievement lies in his distinctive characters, such as the flamboyant Magician, the nymphomaniac Turquoise and the noodle-obsessed Lei Bin. Yeoh and Jung both give convincing performances as the leading couple, but it’s the Wheel King who owns the show at the end. The tech team also craft some nifty, graphic-novel-like action sequences, featuring fast-paced yet meticulous swordplay. However, while the film attempts to carry out the poetic romanticism that was widespread in ancient Chinese tales, its obvious Hollywood traits make it too youthful and playful to be taken quite so seriously. But well, isn’t that what today’s cinema is about?