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January 08, 2013

The Assassins

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Tong que tai
Zhao Linshan - 2012
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

There is something charmingly old fashioned about how transitions from the two centers of action are handled in The Assassins. A map is shown with with a some basic drawings and titles to indicate General Cao's estate. The camera pulls back, travels a bit, and closes in on the castle of the emperor. It's a hokey device straight out of classic Hollywood.

The marquee name here belongs to Chow Yun-Fat as the aforementioned General Cao. If that name has any familiarity, Cao is one of the main true life characters from China's Three Kingdoms period, around 200 A.D. Films about that period comprise a genre of their own as far as Chinese language cinema is concerned, almost the equivalent to the multiple accounts on Hollywood films about Wyatt Earp, Jesse James or Billy the Kid. Seeing a film like this brings to mind how Andrew Sarris discussed how while films like Statecoach or The Searchers were considered classic westerns, they were appreciated best by those who loved the genre. Likewise, in these Chinese period movies, John Woo's Red Cliff is arguably the best of this particular genre, yet in the films that have followed, the better films have more than sumptuous costumes and spectacular battle sequences against a backdrop of palace intrigue.

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This movie really belongs to Liu Yifei, a young actress who is the true center of the action. As Ling Ju, Liu plays a girl kidnapped and placed in grueling conditions to be trained as an assassin. Her target is General Cao. Ling Ju is positioned by unknown people in power to be Cao's mistress. The film becomes a story of impossible love as Ling Ju finds herself with conflicting feelings about Cao, and her longtime love for Mu Shun, her childhood friend, kidnapped as she was, also trained to kill Cao, but now living as a court eunuch. Things turn out badly for everyone, especially for those with the most noble of intentions.

The scene where Ling Ju first encounters Cao is almost magical, with Ling Ju standing in front of the palace, with snow swirling around her. In both this scene and near the end, Ling Ju is dressed in red, the only character to dress in such a visually striking manner. And really, there is little reason to look anywhere else when Liu is onscreen. And while it's not not the same as when Kirk Douglas carries Lana Turner in his arms, and dumps her in the pool, but there's a visually similar moment with Chow carrying Liu, only to unceremoniously dump her on the bed.

One might argue that The Assassins is almost like a show biz saga, where everyone has a part to play. Not only are the two assassins disguised as members of the royal court, but others disguise their true feelings and functions. Even the emperor would rather spend his time in song. The analogy presented here is displayed best by a scene in which the emperor is seen singing behind a screen, as a large, projected shadow. Masks are used in a couple of scenes, most notable during the final battle worn by the emperor and soldiers.

The title translates as "Bronze Sparrow Terrace", a tall building constructed by Cao as a way of displaying his power. While Zhao Linshan may have overdone the use overhead shots in the beginning of the film, the assured visuals in his feature debut come from ten years of making commercials. Relying less on gimmicks and wire work, the screenplay is by Wang Bin, a solo credit following his hand writing two films for Zhang Yimou - Hero and House of Flying Daggers.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at January 8, 2013 07:25 AM