Kill Bill: Medieval China ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Kill Bill: Medieval China

Reign of Assassins
My rating:

I was gonna start this review by talking about John Woo in the same way my Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame review talked about Tsui Hark - in that both are pioneering Hong Kong directors who went to Hollywood for a none-too-successful spell (although Woo did make one genuinely good movie there) and have since returned to their old stomping grounds. But the thing is, calling Reign of Assassins a John Woo film would be misleading. It's written and directed by Su Chao-pin, and Woo is a producer who got a little more hands-on than usual and earned himself a "co-directed by" credit. Still, it's fun to think of Woo and Tsui releasing competing costume action epics at the same time.

This is definitely the better one - but it does fall somewhat short of greatness.

Drizzle is a member of the gang of assassins known as Dark Stone, tasked by her leader Wheel King (Wang Xueqi) to steal the mummified remains of the famed Bodhidharma - a holy relic rumoured to possess mystical powers. But an encounter with a monk named Wisdom (Calvin Li) moves her to abandon her former life. She hides away the remains, undergoes a face-changing surgical procedure, and becomes the perfectly ordinary Zeng Jing (Michelle Yeoh); she even attracts the affections of the equally simple Jiang Ah-Sheng (Jung Woo-sung), who marries her and gives her a taste of wedded bliss. But soon her past catches up to her; Wheel King is still after the Bodhi's remains, and he has the rest of the deadly Dark Stone assassins - Lei Bin (Shawn Yue), the Magician (Leon Dai), and Turquoise (Barbie Hsu) - at his command.

Does or does not that synopsis sound like Kill Bill? It totally does, man! This is Kill Bill in Ming Dynasty-era China, in which The Bride gets a taste of an ordinary life and defends it instead of avenging its loss. Instead of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, we get Dark Stone, which sounds equally cheesetastic, and it's led by a Bill-analogue. And those names! Drizzle, Turquoise, Wheel King and Magician lack a unifying theme a la Cottonmouth, Copperhead and California Mountain Snake, but are no less cool. And there's a Macguffin in the form of the Bodhi's remains, which a bunch of folks called the Kongdong sect are also after - and okay, this is where the analogy breaks down. But I'm finding the comparison useful, since this movie sits squarely in the middle of the spectrum between Kill Bill on one end, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon on the other - and the latter is what it's trying to be.

It doesn't quite achieve that level, but it makes a game try. It starts off with a bang, then settles down to some gentle domestic comedy featuring the courtship between Jing and Ah-Sheng. Which is really quite charming, and establishes the emotional stakes for when the action starts up again later (although the fight scenes are noticeably bloodless, even when guys are getting slashed to ribbons by really sharp implements). There's a realistic and lived-in feel to the film, from the flawless production design - seriously, it's amazing that China can mount such pitch-perfect historical recreations - to the dialogue - little details like a shopkeeper reciting his accounts in silver and gold taels - that really fleshes out the world. And the characters are all interesting, even the minor ones; from the psychotic nymphomaniac Turquoise, to the taciturn Lei Bin who stands in opposition to Jing's desire for a normal life whilst having a wife and child of his own.

But there's also some pseudo-profound Zen philosophy that ultimately doesn't amount to anything. It's not very well-paced, and there's no real sense of mounting tension or rising stakes; one thing happens, then another thing happens, and finally it ends. There is some nice acting here though; Michelle Yeoh gets star billing, of course, and while she's not an actor with a great deal of range, here she gets to stretch her chops just enough and also showcase her terrific screen presence. Her co-star Jung Woo-sung is a little wooden, but he's likable enough as the big lug who loves her, and Barbie Hsu and Shawn Yue are also impressive. But there's also Wang Xueqi, a "prestige" actor in Chinese cinema who is very good in dramatic roles, but somewhat miscast as a mustache-twirling villain.

No, this film works better as a good old-fashioned kungfu action flick, the same kind that inspired Quentin Tarantino to make Kill Bill. It's got all the requisite tropes - the paralyzing nerve strike, aspirations to either rule the "world of martial arts" or retire from it, and seemingly invincible kungfu techniques that can only be countered by other secret techniques. But it's also got lots of neat little touches, such as primitive plastic surgery, wuxia CSI (a character studies the notches on a sword, and determines that it was used to fight someone who wielded a sword as if it were a sabre. This matters.), and a villain's motivation that's just the right kind of crazy-awesome. The fight scenes are, sadly, shot and edited in the usual tight shots and quick-cutting - all the better to hide the lack of real physical prowess in anyone not named Michelle Yeoh. But still, it's all really quite fun.

"Fun" is really what Su and Woo should've went for, instead of trying to make a stately and thoughtful wuxia epic a la Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Because they could've instead made something like Kill Bill - because there can be a beauty and profundity even in deliberately exploitative violence, as Tarantino managed to show us. Reign of Assassins aims for beauty and profundity and falls short, because Su isn't a filmmaker on the same level as Tarantino or Ang Lee and James Shamus. But he did achieve a smart, witty, affecting, and fun action movie, which ain't bad at all. (Oh, and do avoid looking up online sources of info on this film, all of which are stupid with spoilers. Even its Wikipedia entry gives away the major third-act plot twist in its first paragraph.)

Expectations: looks like fun