Another day, another movie about Cao Cao - is there another historical character appearing on film so often lately? Well, in this instalment which follows in this trend you could call "the humanisation of Cao Cao", Chow Yun-fat plays the famous general who’s apparently not so black as he’s painted. Such is the degree of loathing in which he is held, a group of orphans have been captured and forced to train as assassins who will one day assassinate ‘the most powerful man in the world’. The children are whipped, tortured and forced to fight each other to the death in order to find the strongest who will finally be able take out the fearsome military tactician.
Two of these children - Ling-Ju (Crystal Liu aka Liu Yi-fei) and Mu Shun (Hiroshi Tamaki) - fall deeply in love but are quickly separated by the demands of their quest. They eventually meet again by chance at Cao Cao’s compound where their plan ought to be put into action. However, Ling-Ju is beginning to have doubts about her mission - who is this man who must die? The closer she gets to her target the more she begins to see his complex nature and the decency that lies beneath his grim exterior. However, time is running out. A prophecy states that when four stars align shortly, dynasties will rise or fall.
The Assassins is something of a curate’s egg - parts of it are excellent but ultimately it fails to come together as anything more than a casual genre effort. Where other films in this genre are often action heavy and character light, The Assassins has a refreshing tendency to emphasise psychological drama over physical set pieces. However, the film ends up falling between to stools as the wu xia antics interfere with the character interplay and the genre elements themselves often feel half-hearted. The Assassins may have worked better as an artsy chamber piece which allowed the interpersonal tensions to come to the fore, but as a blockbuster period film it really fails to unify its various ambitions.
Although the titular pair of plotters ought to be the centre of the film they are quickly eclipsed by Chow’s presence as the famous general. Their doomed love story completely fails to achieve the sort of weight the film would like it to carry, and in fact Mu Shun is absent for most of the film and makes little impact when he finally appears - of all the central characters, his is the least developed despite the promising nature of his back story. Crystal Liu and Hiroshi Tamaki also exhibit very little chemistry during the brief scenes they share together, and it becomes impossible to really invest in their romance.
Also only superficially explored is the tension between Cao Cao and his son, who also wants to kill him as he’s sick of what he sees as his father’s weakness (and also because he quite fancies the empress so he’s quite keen to take out the emperor as quickly as possible). The tensions at court and the subsequent dynastic collapse become far more interesting than anything else that’s going on, but they aren’t intended to be the focus of this film and so fade into the background. It’s as though the film is constantly distracted by political subplots but then remembers it ought to get back to the more conventional tale of doomed love and strained loyalties. In actual fact, The Assassins might be a much more interesting film if we dispensed with the assassins themselves altogether.
However, that’s not to say the film is a total failure. It has a lot of excellent photography and high production values that ensure that it always looks good. Chow Yun-fat offers a sympathetic and nuanced portrayal of someone with noble aims who’s been forced to act in a way that would seem to oppose them. It is, though, a very uneven film that might prove quite confusing for those making their first foray into the world of Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Uneven, but not without merit, The Assassins earns itself a cautious recommendation if only for the ambitions it failed to realise.
Mandarin with optional English subtitles, alternatively English/French/German dubs and French/German/Dutch subs are also included.
Exclusive to the Blu Ray release are the following:
Deleted Scene, Chow Yun Fat Featurrette, Director Zhao Lin Shan Feaurette, Behinds the Scenes with the Cast, Music Video
(These special features were not available on the DVD check disc we recieved for review)