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April 30, 2013

The Assassin's Blade

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Mo hup leung juk / The Butterfly Lovers
Jingle Ma - 2008
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

Cutie pie Charlene Choi makes one very unconvincing guy. That never gets in the way of enjoying this often delightful retelling of a classic Chinese love story. I wrote about an earlier film version from the Shaw Brothers, Love Eterne, a couple of years ago. The Assassin's Blade might sell a few more DVDs than The Butterfly Lovers, but the second title is more accurate. There is sword fighting and displays of martial arts prowess, but its secondary to the romance which is the heart of this film.

An early scene, with different groups fighting it out on the streets, with Chinese opera styled music on the soundtrack, may well be Jingle Ma's tip of the hat to the older Shaw Brothers productions from the Sixties and early Seventies. It's a scene with broad humor and high kicks while Choi, as the young man, Yanzhi, cowers against a wall. Yanzhi is on his/her way to train in martial arts in a school that only has male students. Even when "Big Brother" Liang is in on the secret, he remains discrete in spite of his feelings for the disguised girl.

Tsui Hark also filmed this story with the English language title of The Lovers. Jingle Ma's version is also a reaction to that film.

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As can be expected, some of the humor comes from Yanzhi trying to avoid situations where her secret might be exposed, such as when, as part of a school initiation, she's tossed into a lake. The five foot, five inch Choi is dwarfed by all of the men here. When trying to show off her martial arts skill, she barely can move any of the large weapons, and is further humiliated by being assigned to study with the children's group. Yanzhi's feminine skills are put to good use when after being praised for repairing a shirt, he/she teaches a group of young men how to saw, with one remarking that it's harder than kung fu.

Most of the potential homoeroticism is sidestepped here. There is a subplot involving political intrigue. Liang and a romantic rival engage in sword fighting. Tony Ching was responsible for staging the action scenes. Still, most people don't see Romeo and Juliet for the brawling of the Montagues and Capulets, and this story, preceding Shakespeare by about six centuries, is no different.

I've seen only a handful of Jingle Ma's films, with this being the best. What stands out for me is the use of color. Liang takes Yanzhi to a valley of butterflies, where the butterflies and the surrounding plant life are hyper intensive pastels. There is also a wonderful use of red, the wedding costumes worn by Yanzhi and her fiance, Ma, the lanterns, as well as the tinting of Liang's sword, in one of the later scenes.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at April 30, 2013 08:38 AM