Reign of Assassins has all the elements that form the basic trappings of a solid martial arts film, with plenty of swordplay, characters with hidden motivations, and an object of everyone's desire be it a martial arts manual, an awesome weapon, or just good old treasure. In this film which Su Chao-Bin wrote and directed, with co-directing and producing credits going to John Woo as well, everyone's after the mummified remains of a formidable Indian monk, where rumours and word of the power of the remains made every swordsman crave to possess it.
As the story goes, a group of assassins called Dark Stone, led by Wheel King (Wang Xueqi) has come into possession of half those remains, but Kelly Lin's Drizzle took flight with that and plenty of gold to become a fugitive of her own group – Leon Dai as The Magician, Shawn Yue as Lei Bin and new rookie Zhang Qing (Barbie Tsu) who had joined the team. In a Face/Off turn, she goes under the knife and now has the face of Michelle Yeoh (whoa!), living in disguise in the city, flying below the radar and effectively living the simple, ordinary life she yearns for, with absolutely no need for picking up the sword, though always kept handy at home just in case trouble comes knocking.
The pan-Asia A-list cast is something that will draw attention to the film, coming from Taiwan, Hong Kong, China and Korea. It's been some time since I last saw a wuxia film that featured a female swordsman as the lead, and being the anti-heroine at that as well. Starting off as a killer, Michelle Yeoh's Zeng Jing is unfortunately dubbed over, though I suspect for a valid reason that we'll have to live with in this film. In fact, more than one more character has voice issues that I cannot elaborate, and when revealed you'd start to wonder whether martial arts films can ever distance itself from that kind of villain from the courts, which is rather cliched. Yeoh will undoubtedly bring comparisons with her other famous martial arts role from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, although here Barbie Hsu's no Zhang Ziyi to steal that thunder or limelight, being cast as a psychotic nymphomaniac with a penchant to shed her clothes in the hope of climbing the power ladder (sorry guys, no nudity involved).
What shines in this film is the rich characterization beyond the usual one-dimensional characters in most martial arts flick, which gives the viewer a richer experience as we get emotionally invested in the plight of the characters. Everyone seems to want a way out of their usual kill or be killed drudgery, though it's one thing leaving the Jiang Hu altogether and retire, and another if you actually belong to a gang of bandits and assassins where your ex-buddies just won't leave you alone. The story allowed for any available screen time to pause for a while to present the other, ordinary side of the characters where we see their hopes and dreams, whether be it settling down, gaining some worldly possession.
I had initially wondered why Wang Xueqi was cast since he's an incredible actor but had little to do in the first half of the film other than to look mean and nasty, but then realized that you need an actor of gravitas to pull off what he did in the latter half of the film, which in the hands of a lesser actor could have been really comical. Instead he brought that sense of an obsessed man whose desperate for what's almost an impossible change or dream, which form the crux of all misery. The other actor to be admired here is Korean actor Jung Woo-sung who plays a courier and falls in love with Zeng Jing. Spending time to ensure he learns his Mandarin dialogue as accurately as possible so that when dubbed over it will look convincing, I will have to agree that he pulled it off, and his good looks fit right into this period piece with some surprises up the sleeve.
Action fans will have something to look forward to in the film, as it spends time crafting kinetically charged sword-fighting scenes which at times I felt the quick cuts didn't do those choreographed moves much justice. However everyone pretty much battles everyone else, which accentuates the good old wuxia adage of it being perfectly normal if self-preservation happens to be the order of the day. Throw in motivations of revenge, lust (though very subtle) and jealousy especially with two women characters sharing the same scene, we know we're in for a good time, especially when the story's kept tight and compact. Some wonderful set action pieces like the one in the bank and the disturbance at home all make for good entertainment, and clearly with John Woo absent from giving his two cents worth in these scenes (no slow motions if you get what I mean), though not always necessarily for the better as the quick cuts sometimes get in the way of appreciating the hard work gone behind the designing of such battles, which are wire-enhanced.
At its core Reign of Assassins is a romantic tale steeped in tragic irony, with martial arts film fans likely to lap up an out and out fantastical wuxia film. Almost all the characters have a past they want to cease remembering, and are harbouring plans for a new life sans violence. Love of course plays a part in the determination of this second chance, but this calls for sacrifice that we see once enemies now lovers have got to embrace as they decide to come clean with their feelings, alongside twists that get revealed especially in the final act.
Compared to Detective Dee this may not seem as epic nor groundbreaking in terms of offering something new to an audience, but it is essentially its sublime essence in knowing what's critical in a wuxia film and doing that well, at times giving you that feeling of having watched a classic martial arts film of old now remade with a stellar cast and knowing how best to appeal to a modern audience. Highly recommended and it powers its way into my shortlist at the end of the year as well.