Reign of Assassins: John Woo’s Chinese Martial Arts Movie
Drizzle/Zeng Jing tries to start a new life after she had betrayed her gang and hid the remains of monk.
Reign of Assassins starts with an animated segment that tells the story of a monk named Bodhi. Before his death, Bodhi became a master martial artist. And after his death, his remains have been rumored to grant extraordinary power to any martial artist who possesses them. We enter the story as the Dark Stone, a league of assassins led by the Wheel King (a very raspy Wang Xueqi), attempts to steal Bodhi’s remains from a prominent family. The family is killed, the remains are stolen. And the young female assassin (Kelly Lin) betrays her comrades and runs off with Bodhi’s corpse.
Instead of attempting to achieve ultimate power. Kelly Lin’s assassin ultimately decides to give up the life of martial arts and settle down in a more normal lifestyle. But first, she goes to a doctor and asks for a new face so as to avoid her enemies (the doctor alters her face by sticking insects beneath her skin to gnaw away at her bone structure.
We don’t see the torture of the surgery but just the idea is terrifying). After a passage of time, off come the bandages and Kelly Lin becomes Michelle Yeoh. Years pass and the woman, now going by the name Zeng Jing, blends into society as a merchant. However, the martial arts world’s search for Bodhi’s remains continues, and she cannot outrun her past forever.
As far as MacGuffins go. The crispy corpse of a badass monk ranks up there as one of the stranger ones I’ve heard of. And I enjoy odd ideas that you don’t see all the time. But the rest of the plot is a little beyond belief, relying on coincidences, body switches, and more than one supposedly dead person coming back to life. It’s like a soap opera with kung fu.
It should be noted that I watched the international version of the film. Which is more than 10 minutes shorter than the cut released in China. What was edited and where, I have no idea. It’s my suspicion that many of the cuts came in the first act of the film, which is edited with such frenetic pacing that it’s occasionally difficult to follow.
Though written and directed by Su Chao-Bin (Silk). The film’s promotional material mainly focuses on producer and co-director John Woo (Red Cliff). It’s unclear how much credit Woo deserves as a co-director, though it’s said that he was on set almost daily, spent time in the editing room in post. And was the main director for a sequence featuring his daughter. Angeles Woo (The Crossing). Watching the movie, it’s easy to make comparisons to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, as both films feature Michelle Yeoh, wire-fu, and a couple similar plot developments. But it’s clear from the start that Su and Woo have a totally different kind of film in mind. And they never go for the same sort of visual poetry that Ang Lee achieved. Reign of Assassins (Ngoa Kiem) is a wuxia action movie with a healthy dose of romance thrown in. But it is no art film.
Michelle Yeoh is pretty solid in her first major martial arts-heavy role since Crouching Tiger nearly ten years prior. It’s a bit odd to watch her performance done in a different voice but that’s part of the film’s bizarre charm. Korean actor Jung Woo-sung (The Good, the Bad, the Weird) plays Yeoh’s lover in the more laidback second-act of the assassin’s life. I’ve always liked Jung and thought he did well in a role that was likely a challenge for him. As it required him to speak Mandarin. As the Wheel King, Wang Xueqi (Bodyguards and Assassins) is a bit over-the-top, with a whispery villain’s voice and a hood that obscures much of his face.
The Wheel King’s motivations for obtaining the dead monk’s remains are certainly eye-opening. And it makes for one of the film’s more, umm, amusing developments. The rest of the Wheel King’s Dark Stone assassins are likable in their own ways. But they lack much in the way of character development beyond their main fighting style attributes. Still, actors Barbie Hsu (Croczilla), Shawn Yue (Wild City), and Leon Dai (Yi Yi) make good work of their limited screen time.
There are a few cool especially cool moments in the film, like the bank robbery performed via martial arts. And the film’s final fight sequence that successfully mixes drama and action to make for a satisfying finale. However, I still feel the story disappoints.
Reign of Assassins is an entertaining. If unremarkable wuxia action movie (phim hanh dong) that ranks a few notches below some of the genre’s finer efforts from recent years. Whether it was worth the wait is up for you to decide. I certainly would not deter curious viewers from watching the film. Just keep your expectations in check.