Initially reluctant to star in a demanding physical role so long after what seemed to be the height of her career in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Michelle Yeoh eventually gave in to a script with characters as rich as its fight scenes. In Reign of Assassins, Yeoh proves she still has what it takes both as a dramatic actress and as an action star.
The Chinese title of Reign of Assassins is Jianyu, Jianghu, translating literally as "Swords and Rain, Rivers and Lakes." "Jianghu" is the poetic term for the martial arts underworld, roughly analogous to the world of superheroes in western fiction. It's the realm of wushu masters, shapechangers, and magicians. It's where the player characters in Pathfinder's Tian Xia setting live, and if I'd found the film a few months earlier, it would have been a tremendous inspiration for Master of Devils.
Reign of Assassins begins with a fight for control of a prophet's mortal remains, said to grant its possessor ultimate mastery. When the Dark Stone gang murder the prime minister for the mummy, their top assassin, Drizzle, steals away with half of the corpse. After encountering a monk who shows her the fatal flaw in her swordsmanship, Drizzle has a change of heart and leaves the martial arts world to begin her life again, complete with a new name and face, the latter courtesy of a master surgeon whose tools include bone-devouring insects.
Free of her former colleagues, Zeng hides her ill-gotten wealth and lives as a simple cloth merchant. Despite the tireless efforts of her match-making market neighbor, Zeng falls in love with a poor messenger, Ah-sheng. They live happily together until caught up in a bank robbery. To save her husband's life, Zeng reveals her skill, drawing the attention of the Dark Stone assassins.
The Wheel King is the gang's whispering leader, possessed of extraordinary knowledge and deadly sword skill. He has replaced the treacherous Drizzle with Turquoise, a courtesan whose charms are as deadly as her blade. The other top assassins include a noodle-loving master of darts and a magician capable of disappearing up a rope to the clouds and setting his swords aflame.
The final act is full of so many revelations and betrayals that I don't dare describe it further. The action is top-notch, in part because of the consultations of the legendary John Woo, credited as co-director. Korean writer/director Su Chau-bin deserves credit both for a thrilling story and for wrangling a multi-national cast, not all of whom spoke Mandarin.
That cast includes the sensational Jung Woo-sung (The Good, the Bad, and the Weird, Musa, and The Restless, the latter two of which I'll describe in later posts) as Zeng's husband, the excellent Kelly Lin (Sparrow, Mad Detective) as pre-reconstruction Drizzle, and the sublime Wang Xueqi (Bodyguards & Assassins, Warriors of Heaven and Earth) as the Wheel King.
Like Detective Dee, Reign of Assassins is not a reinvention of the genre but a loving revival of the best sort of wuxia films from the late 80s and 90s. The action choreography puts to shame the CGI of recent films, and the script and direction strike a perfect balance between outrageous action and human melodrama, with some sweet character-based humor at all the right moments. One of the film's best qualities is the depth of its antagonists, each of whom enjoys some measure of sympathy and even tragedy.
In his director's commentary for his famous film, Ang Lee apologizes to Chinese audiences for the relatively slow start to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, in which he grounds western audiences in the conventions of jianghu before unleashing the wire work. Had he made his movie without regard for culture clash, we might have seen something closer to Reign of Assassins, which is every bit as admirable but even more thrilling for fans of action and fantasy.