Reign Of Assassins

Reign Of Assassins


Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

You wait years for a Chinese period martial arts film that reimagines David Cronenberg's A History Of Violence (2005), and then two come along in rapid succession. On April 5, Peter Chan's Dragon (2011), aka Wu Xia, hits select screens in the UK - but before that there is Su Chao-pin's Reign Of Assassins. Not that Cronenberg is Su's only cinematic influence – for a plot featuring characters who undergo an ancient variation of plastic surgery to conceal their identities is lifted, somewhat anachronistically, straight from John Woo's Face/Off (1997). No surprises, then, that Woo himself is credited as Reign Of Assassins' producer and co-director.

Theft also plays a prominent part within the plot, as the corpse of ancient kung fu master Bodhi, preserved in two parts and said to confer special powers on its possessor, becomes the much-sought MacGuffin that drives all the action. In the introductory sequence, a ring of assassins known as the Dark Stone raids a minister's home to steal one half of the corpse, murdering the minister and his son in the process – but there is no honour among thieves, and one of their number, the ruthless swordswoman Shi Yu (Kelly Lin), steals off with the treasured item intending to keep it for herself. After discovering the minister's son still alive and out for vengeance, she kills him once more, and falls in with a benevolent monk significantly named Wisdom (Calvin Li) who sets her on a new path of personal metamorphosis and redemption.

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Yet, as the doctor (Kin Shijie) who alters Shi Yu's face beyond all recognition later puts it, "Karma really is a bitch". Shi Yu may hang up her swords, may (both literally and metaphorically) bury her past identity, may reinvent herself as Zeng Jing (and now be played by Michelle Yeoh), may earn her living selling textiles in the capital's marketplace, and may get married to humble street courier Jiang Ah-sheng (Korean heartthrob Jung Woo-sung), but nonetheless, both destiny and the doggedness of her former brethren conspire to ensure that her history of violence keeps coming back to haunt her fugitive present.

In this saga of split bodies and double lives, it seems that everyone yearns for change. Take the assassins in the Dark Stone: Lei Bin (Shawn Yue) would just like to open a noodle shop with his wife in Chengzhou; the Magician (Leon Dai) wants his youth and health restored; Shi Yu's young replacement, the deadly seductress Turquoise (Barbie Hsu), longs for power; and the guild's leader The Wheel King (Wang Xueqi) is on his own secret quest for a wholeness he has long since lacked. Yet they are all trapped in a closed system from which Shi Yu alone has a "window of opportunity" to escape – and so the film, for all its familiar wire-fu trappings, allegorises Buddhist notions of self-transformation in a world of illusions.

This spiritual frame also goes some way to justifying an otherwise improbably high degree of coincidence in the film's plot. It is hard, for example, to credit that Shi Yu and Ah-sheng should just happen to be visiting a bank at the precise moment when it is raided by an assassins' gang who are after the half of Bodhi's corpse not in Shi Yu's possession – but when we have the doctor asking, "You don't think this is destiny? You haven't realised?", the possibility is opened up that there are higher karmic forces at work here. Throw in some inventive chopsocky tempered by romance, and a typically winning lead performance by Yeoh, and you have a fatalistic wuxia about the martial pursuit of a "normal life".

Reviewed on: 15 Feb 2013
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An assassin who has renounced her deadly trade finds the past is catching up with her.
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Director: Su Chao-pin, co-directed by John Woo

Writer: Su Chao-pin

Starring: Michelle Yeoh, Jung Woo-sung, Wang Xueqi, Barbie Hsu, Shawn Yue, Kelly Lin, Guo Xiaodong, Jiang Yiyan, Leon Dai

Year: 2010

Runtime: 117 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: China


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If you like this, try:

A History Of Violence