Sometimes the overwhelming success of a particular genre film can have an unfortunate effect on the movies following it. I’m talking here about Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, which has become so popular and awarded since its release in 2000 that it’s now the gold standard for martial arts films. It has allowed lazy film publicists, uninformed film reviewers and the general public to label a new kung fu / martial arts film as simply being not as good, or as good as Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. One of the stars of the latter, Michelle Yeoh, has also been afflicted with similar career comparisons, especially when appearing in an action movie.
Now, having said that, my quick-take on the new big budget martial arts co-production Reign of Assassins – it’s the best martial arts film since Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Michelle Yeoh’s finest screen work for a long time. It’s probably the best martial arts release we will see this year on any size screen.
Reign of Assassins opens with a detailed Shaw Brothers-like prologue telling the history of the Bodhi Dharma who, it’s said, introduced kung fu into China nearly a thousand years ago. After his death, his mummified body took on a mystical status which, legend has it, would allow the person who had possession of the body to become the undisputed ruler of the martial arts world.
The body had been stolen and drawn in two, making both sections equally important and sought after.
The Dark Stone sect is a secret group of uniquely talented martial arts assassins led by the Wheel King (Wang Xue Qi). The gang through its ruthless efficiency holds sway over the government of the day. One of the assassins, Drizzle (Kelly Lin), acts on a hunch and after killing a government minister she finds one half of the Bodhi Dharma. She flees her killler clan and disappears with a fortune in gold and silver. The Wheel King seeks revenge and an opportunity to secure the embalmed body and his position in the martial arts universe.
In an ancient Chinese nip and tuck procedure (with the aid of flesh eating insects), Kelly Lin morphs into Michelle Yeoh. Drizzle becomes Zeng Jing and sees her future as a law abiding citizen selling silk in the city’s market. A new face, a new home and a new vocation all sees life neatly falling into place for Jing. A tentative romance with the running man, Jiang (played by Korean star Jung Woo-Sung), a courier who courts Jing with the help of inclement weather and Aunt Cai.
You might be mistaken in thinking Reign of Assassins sounds like a fanciful, lightweight martial arts drama – well, it isn’t! When the storyline darkens and the action gets going it’s fast and furious HK style, with action choreography by Stephen Tung Wai. I consider Tung Wai to be one of the unheralded heroes of Cantonese action film-making during the 1990s. With his regular collaborator, Benz Kong, his work on features like Tsui Hark’s The Blade and Billy Chung’s The Assassin were high points in visceral action cinema. In Reign, working without Benz Kong, Tung Wai showers the audience with fantasy action sequences which will leave you breathless. In a standout sequence the Dark Stone members turn on each other filling the screen with deadly aerial duels, liquid swords and capes of fire. It’s great stuff!
Reign is co-directed by John Woo and Su Chao-Pin, the latter who is more known as a screenwriter than director. The film has been well nourished budget-wise with the money well spent. Reign actually shows how the often derided international co-production can work when the right people are employed on both sides of the camera.
Visually the movie looks a treat. Woo has been reunited with his regular Hong Kong DOP, Wong Wing-Hang. Wong has given the film a warm sensual feel with beautifully lensed shots of houseboats on still lakes and set-bound nocturnal scenes shot through filtered lenses. There are some obvious but quite subtle nods to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and the Shaw Brothers.
In the past decade, Michelle Yeoh has become a first rate character actor (check out her starring role in the 2007 Arctic pic Far North), and in Reign she lets us see a vulnerable, guilt-ridden person who has been given a second chance at life. Her relationship with Jiang is well developed and we see a different side to this once cold-hearted killer.
Barbie Hsu is Turquoise Leaf, the Dark Stone replacement for Drizzle: a young feisty woman who was also brought back from the dead early in the film. But she is a stone killer of the first degree who ruthlessly and singularly uses sex and violence for her own ends. Unable to empathise with people and quick to condemn, she is a classic psychopath in the gaudy Naked Killer tradition.
In the second half of the pic it’s Yeoh and Hsu who become central to the narrative. It’s unusual for Woo to design strong star roles for women in his films, any such characters usually relegated to, at best, substantial supporting roles (Zhao Wei in Red Cliff is a good example). But it works well in Reign and the movie is all the better for it. Interestingly, most of the male characters are ultimately depicted as seriously flawed and ineffective people.
The film closes at the Yun He temple where myth and legend collide in a welter of bloodshed and martial arts action, which leads to a surprisingly human and very satisfying conclusion.