For viewers still smarting at Chow Yun Fat having dropped out of John Woo’s epic “Red Cliff” comes “The Assassins”, finally offering fans the chance to see the actor playing legendary Three Kingdoms personage Cao Cao. Marking the debut of former advertising director Zhao Lin Shan, the film also boasts the visual talents of Zhao Xiao Ding, a regular collaborator of Zhang Yimou who was nominated for an Oscar for his stunning work on “House of Flying Daggers”. In addition to Chow Yun Fat, the film features an impressive cast that also includes Crystal Liu (“The Four”), Alec Su (“The Message”), Ni Dahong (“A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop”), Annie Yi (“My Kingdom”) and Japanese actor Tamaki Hiroshi (“Nodame Cantabile”) as the various other players in the complex plot.
The film is set some time after the events of “Red Cliff” during the Eastern Han Dynasty, with Cao Cao (Chow Yun Fat) now the all-powerful Chancellor and effective ruler of the land, controlling the weak willed puppet emperor Xian (Alec Su). Using an ancient prophecy as an excuse, his enemies at court persuade the emperor that Cao Cao is certain to rebel and claim the throne for himself, leading to an assassination attempt. Unbeknownst to him however, danger also lurks even closer to home, his concubine Ling Ju (Crystal Liu) and servant Mu Shun (Tamaki Hiroshi) being part of a shadowy cult of assassins raised from children to plan his death. With matters further complicated by his scheming son Cao Pi (Qiu Xin Zhi) having an affair with the empress Fu Shou (Annie Yi), the much feared Chancellor starts taking steps to protect himself against his many foes.
Cao Cao is a fascinating figure with a rich and incredibly eventful life, who is open to multiple interpretations and who has featured in a great many films, either as a villain or more ambiguous figure – so, naturally the question here is to what “The Assassins” has to add to the mix. It’s first certainly worth saying that viewers expecting another “Red Cliff” are likely to be disappointed, as while it’s a lavish, good looking affair, Zhao Lin Shan generally steers away from bombast and melodramatic spectacle, the film featuring only a handful of duels and battle scenes and instead focusing on politics, plotting and philosophising. This isn’t a bad thing by any means, as “The Assassins” is a well-written and nicely pulled together piece of character drama and palace intrigue, with plenty going on and lots of different factions trying to bring about Cao Cao’s downfall. The tension builds effectively throughout, with a few clever twists here and there, and there’s a general feeling of substance and gravity lacking in many other recent Chinese period epics. This lifts the film up a few notches, and though scarcely original, there’s at least meat on its bones.
Unsurprisingly, “The Assassins” is absolutely Chow Yun Fat’s film, completely revolving around him and with the actor appearing in and dominating pretty much every scene – even when he’s not on screen, rarely does a moment pass without characters talking about him. Thankfully, Chow attacks the role with a relish and commitment he hasn’t shown in a while, and delivers one of his career best performances, convincing and gripping in the role, and adding layers of depth and humanity, showing just the right balance of steely ruthlessness, menace, angst and vulnerability. Successfully portraying Cao Cao as a magnetic though flawed and not necessarily likeable man with an incredible weight on his shoulders, his stunning turn is easily worth the price admission alone.
This is just as well, as inevitably the film is considerably weaker when it does stray from Cao Cao, the rest of the cast paling in his shadow and failing to arouse too much interest. Ling Ju’s narration, though initially fine as a basic cypher for the viewer, becomes a bit unnecessary, mainly since there really isn’t much to her or much of a push from the script to turn her into anything more than a vague romantic distraction as she half-heartedly falls for him. Though both Crystal Liu and Tamaki Hiroshi are fine, their pairing similarly never rings true, and the whole thwarted lovers tragedy is strangely left undeveloped. This is true of several other of the films side relationships, and aside from the reasonably engaging thread involving Cao Pi and his relationship with his father, there’s nothing too worthy of note, leaving things a bit cold at times.
Still, this doesn’t matter too much in the face of Chow Yun Fat’s majestic central turn and the strength of the script, and “The Assassins” is definitely one of the better recent Chinese historical epics. Making up for in drama and general Cao Cao related intrigue what it might lack in action, fans of Three Kingdoms fare or the central star certainly shouldn’t be disappointed.
Linshan Zhao (director) / Bin Wang (screenplay)
CAST: Yun-Fat Chow … Cao Cao
Yifei Liu … Gong Ling Ju
Hiroshi Tamaki … Mu Shun
Alec Su … Emperor Xian