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November 01, 2016

Lost / Assassins

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The Lost Bladesman / Guan yun chang
Alan Mak & Felix Chong - 2011
Anchor Bay Entertainment Region 1 DVD

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Reign of Assassins / Jian yu
Su Chao-Bin and John Woo - 2010
Anchor Bay Entertainment Region 1 DVD

Two Chinese language martial arts films rescued from the shelves of Harvey Weinstein. I have to wonder if The Lost Bladesman is getting an overdue home video release due to its two stars also appearing in a much anticipated science fiction epic, in roles somewhat similar to the ones they have in this film. Also puzzling, for myself, is with the success of Infernal Affair and especially the Martin Scorsese remake, the team of Mak and Chong haven't had any significant stateside releases since Initial D. Better late than never, though I'm still hoping the pair's Overheard series is given a shot for North American viewers.

This is yet another adaptation of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, albeit one that is loosely inspired by the classic. The main narrative centers on the uneasy alliance between Cao Cao (Jiang Wen) and Guan (Donnie Yen), two enemy generals in the battles for unifying China between 169 AD and 280 AD. Guan also acts as protector for Qilan, the concubine of the warlord Liu Bei, and the object of Guan's unstated love.

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Literary or historical fidelity is of less interest than the action set pieces here. Donnie Yen also served as the action director, which works well in conjunction with some of the visual stylization. Guan's weapon of choice is a long blade attached like a spear. In one scene, he is pursued through a series of narrow alleyways, and at one point uses his blade to tear off rooftop tiles, which fall upon his pursuer. There is also a scene that might have been inspired by Track of the Cat, taking place in an almost monochrome set of white, black and gray, with red gates and pillars. Perhaps also taking its queue from Hollywood classics is a fight unseen when the compound doors are closed, and the viewer is left with the sounds of Guan fighting a team of soldiers, until the doors open again.

As much as I usually like Donnie Yen, historical veracity might have been better ignored rather than trying to look past the obviously fake looking wig and beard. As it is, that's not Yen's voice, but someone else speaking Mandarin on behalf of the star from Hong Kong. And while there is disclaimer stating that no animals were harmed in the production, I certainly hope that is the case with what appears to be a tripped horse that catapults Yen, flying into a fight, in spectacular fashion.

As in Infernal Affairs, Buddhism is touched upon here, though more briefly. In discussion with a monk, Cao Cao discusses the perceptions of heaven and hell and how elements of each can be found in either state of being. There are also some beautifully filmed quiet moments, as when Guan encounters Cao Cao in a rice field with the harvesting farmers.

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Reign of Assassins is an attempt at bringing back the old school Hong Kong martial arts film, with wire work, editing tricks and and twisty swords. There is some historical basis in that there was a monk named Bohdidharma who introduced Buddhism to China as well as the foundation for kung fu. Known throughout this film as Bodhi, rival gangs are in pursuit of the remains, based on a legend that whomever is in possession will have great magical powers. The female assassin known as Drizzle snatches the upper torso of Bodhi, gets facial surgery, and tries to live as an ordinary woman. Known as Zhen Jing, she marries a poor stranger who turns out to be a man, also with facial surgery, who she would have murdered had she known that his internal organs were reversed.

Su Chao-Bin showed much promise with his directorial debut, the horror film, Silk. Since then, most of his career has been as screenwriter for other directors. Su also provided the story for the enjoyable College Confidential which I caught at the Udine Far East Film Festival. How much of the film was actually directed by John Woo may be a matter of dispute, though he was certainly on the set. Even the presence of Michelle Yeoh doesn't make this attempt at reviving Nineties style wuxia more interesting. Barbie Hsu almost steals the film as the conniving assassin, Turquoise, who has no problem shedding her clothes when it serves her purposes, only to be embarrassed when her attempt at seduction totally fails.

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Posted by peter at November 1, 2016 07:43 AM