Just when I thought films based on the the Three Kingdoms era had gone out of fashion, here comes a lavishly produced movie from China that stars one of Asian's most well known actors in the lead role of Cao Cao, the de-facto ruler of the Wu Kingdom, toward the tail end of his rule. But first things first, for a film like this, don't expect too accurate a historical lesson, because dramatic license is there for the taking to spice a film up. We've seen how John Woo's Red Cliff went, from what should be an attempt to make it accurate, to lapsing into his trademarks in an all out battle fashioned out of the imagination in the finale. This one doesn't try too hard to reference from historical records, but didn't go too much into the fantastical like how Daniel Lee's Resurrection of the Dragon film did.
Often depicted as a cunning schemer, and the villain amongst the three kingdoms, debut director Zhao Linshan's film seemed to be take on a neutral stand in being none too judgemental on what Cao Cao did, and more often than not, the man is seen to react to his plotters' plans to rid him of power, rather than to be on the warpath to persecute his enemies. It's also something of a reminder for ruthless leaders, that it makes it all the more attractive to depose one from power, and the inevitable twilight in one's years are just natural opportunities to do so. We get introduced to such attempts early on in the film, but as the movie progressed, we get a different perspective of the man, especially on his unwavering principle of not usurping the throne for himself, which he can, but won't, much to the detriment of his power hungry and ambitious son Cao Pi (Qiu Xinzhi).
And Chow Yun Fat's charisma meant his portrayal of Cao Cao was what would be the most interesting of the lot in the film. His presence swallows up the screen, and effortlessly steals the thunder away from his co-stars. However, this is a role that he's played a number of times before, with the latest being the Emperor in Zhang Yimou's Curse of the Golden Flower, which may bring some sense of deja-vu as a ruthless leader on whom assassination attempts have become a dime a dozen. In fact, his charisma meant we remember more of his scenes than the titular assassins', and this film could have been named "Cao Cao", which is a more accurate depiction of the movie, or should go by the Mandarin title which refers to a watchtower of sorts in Cao's fortress, which of course was built for a reason.
The assassins here referred to a pair of lovers in Ling Ju (Liu Yifei) and Mu Shun (Hiroshi Tamaki), who have been trained with countless of others since young to build that natural killer instinct in them, before sent to infiltrate Cao's camp and to wait for a signal that will trigger their Manchurian Candidate like characteristics. Mu Shun drew the shorter end of the stick, and became a eunuch, thus physically ending any hope of intimacy with Ling Ju, while she becomes a concubine, and a very emotional one at that, to Cao. There's a reason for all these of course, and credit has to go to the scriptwriters to pay attention to detail in order to enrich this Three Kingdoms story. Liu did what she does best in her recent period outings, playing that virtuous, at times token, beauty, while Tamaki as Mu Shun was totally wasted in the film, doing little and at best, a guest star who can lament at being left out of the fun and critical junctures.
What I liked about this movie, even if it's centered primarily around Cao Cao, is how it so easily brings in other elements and characters from the Three Kingdoms era into the narrative. We only get glimpses or mention of others, but that is sufficient to enhance the scope of this epic wannabe. While there's evergreen characters like Guan Yu, even earlier ones like Dong Zhuo, Lu Bu and Diao Chan got mentioned, since it's about that timeline when Cao's influence grew, and to have this film broach the topics, made it a little more expansive. And you can tell how the storytellers decided from the onset to do so, rather than haphazardly thrown in as an afterthought in the final act.
Then there's Alec Su's portrayal as the puppet Emperor Xian, which provides some light hearted moments against the heavier politicking backdrop where ministers and generals of the court have to face up to their failed attempts to rid Cao of his influence amongst them. The central part of the film had a gripping and intense court session that allowed Chow's Cao to show just how influential and cruel he can be, and the amount of power wielded despite not wanting to seize the throne for himself. And Alec Su was always in the thick of such action, and probably playing against Chow had also made him raise the level of the game in his character's interaction with Chow.
The Assassins provided more of a character study instead of lapsing into action sequences for the sake of. There's a distinct lack of war scenes and blood being shed if compared to the previous Three Kingdom related movies, but it is the power of the mind, the complexity of the primary scheme which took years of gestation, and its execution in the climax, that makes this movie an engaging watch. For those weaned on the earlier film interpretations, you probably won't see Cao Cao in the same light again.