Reign of Assassins 劍雨
Costume martial arts drama
2010, colour, 2.35:1, 118 mins
Directed by Su Chao-pin (蘇照彬); co-directed by John Woo (吳宇森)
By Derek Elley
Fri, 03 September 2010, 22:57 PM (HKT)
A tip-top cast, well-crafted script and punchy action capture the classic essence of the swordplay genre. Some theatrical potential beyond Asia, plus strong ancillary.
China, early Ming dynasty. Some 800 or so years after the death of Buddhist monk-cum-legendary martial artist Bodhi, his long-lost remains are still sought after, as their owner will supposedly gain limitless power and rule over the martial arts world. Members of The Dark Stone secret guild of assassins hear that imperial minister Zhang Haiduan has half of Bodhi's remains and go to kill him; afterwards, one of the assassins, invincible swordswoman Drizzle (Kelly Lin), makes off with the remains, en route killing Zhang's son, Zhang Renfeng (Guo Xiaodong). Wheel King (Wang Xueqi), head of The Dark Stone, puts a price of 50,000 taels of gold on Drizzle's head. She leaves Shanxi province, and trains with Buddhist monk Wisdom (Calvin Li), whose advice convinces her to quit the martial arts world. After depositing her half of Bodhi's remains in Yunhe Temple, where she gets further advice from aged monk Delusion, she pays renowned Doctor Li (Chin Shih-chieh) to change her face, so she can begin a new life. Some time later, under the name Zeng Jing, she moves to the Capital and opens a small fabrics stall, eventually marrying Jiang Asheng (Jeong Woo-seong), a professional courier. But Wheel King is still hunting her, along with his top assassins Lei Bin (Shawn Yue), The Magician (Leon Dai) and his personally-trained replacement for Drizzle, Turquoise Ye (Barbie Hsu). Meanwhile, someone has been murdering people in the Capital, and members of the Kongdong Sect, which is reputed to have the other half of Bodhi's remains, are due to arrive to sell them to Zhang Dajing, the crippled head of United Bank.
It's been a long time since a movie has captured the essence of the costume martial arts genre as well as Reign of Assassins 劍雨 (2010). Without heavy resort to visual effects, and without going too far down any one stylistic road, the film gives new life to a genre that's been pulled every which way in the past 20 years in search of new thrills. The biggest compliment that can be paid to the movie is that it's just like opening and reading a classic swordplay novel, but also seems absolutely of its era and with its own identity, with no sense of being a retro-flavoured tribute.
Taiwanese director SU Chao-pin 蘇照彬, who made the cheeky comedy Better Than Sex 愛情靈藥 (2001) before tripping up with scifi thriller Silk 詭絲 (2006), is at heart a scriptwriter (The Cabbie 運轉手之戀 (2000), Double Vision 雙瞳 (2002)), and it's here that Reign of Assassins scores. Apart from obviously knowing and loving his swordplay novels, Su has invested his characters with a depth that recalls classic scripts like those of the late King HU 胡金銓 (especially Dragon Inn 龍門客棧 (1967) and A Touch of Zen 俠女 (1970)), finding time for charming asides and small details; and the movie's Swiss Clock construction, as all the elements finally click into place, is dramatically satisfying rather than just grandstanding its cleverness. Aside from a generally dark, saturated look to the colours, and a habit of shooting the action in medium close-up, Su shows no notable directing quirks: everything is at the service of the characters, actors and script, with the editing by Hong Kong's CHEUNG Ka-fai 張嘉輝 making sure the viewer knows exactly where everyone is whenever the cork pops off the bottle.
With such a well-chosen cast, the movie gradually starts to bloom once the basic set-up — female assassin seeks a new life by surgically changing her face — is dealt with in the opening 20 minutes. Su's script spends a relatively long time detailing the slow-burning romance between Michelle YEOH 楊紫瓊's swordswoman and JEONG U-seong 정우성 | 鄭雨成's professional messenger but in dramatic terms this pays off later, as their seemingly simple domesticity is interrupted by assassins from her past. With such a rich gallery of characters — from Mainland veteran WANG Xueqi 王學圻's gaspy-voiced super-villain to Taiwanese actress Barbie HSU 徐熙媛's trashy psychopath — the movie works first and foremost as a drama, with the martial arts adding extra value rather than substituting for thin characterisation. Though she's only on screen for the first 15 minutes, Taiwan's Kelly LIN 林熙蕾 — apart from making a perfect facial precursor for Yeoh — makes one regret more directors haven't cast her in martial arts movies; she's one of the most believably ruthless swordswomen since Helen MA 馬海倫.
Su makes good use of Yeoh's cool elegance in a part that's tailor-made for the Malaysian-Chinese star, and the obvious 10-year age difference between her and younger South Korean co-star Jeong (The Good The Bad The Weird 좋은 놈, 나쁜 놈, 이상한 놈 (2008), A Good Rain Knows 호우시절 (2009)) actually works as a distraction from one of the twists. It's one of several cheeky touches throughout the movie, which has fun not only with Hsu's wonderfully slutty swordswoman and Leon DAI 戴立忍's magician-assassin but also completely pulls the carpet from under the audience when the real motivation for Wang's super-villain is revealed. Though some of this may seem over-the-top to western audiences, it's all thoroughly in tune with the fantastical element of classic swordplay literature.
Production design (and costumes by WADA Emi 和田惠美) find a middle path between the current trend of grungy realism and the more laundered look of classic movies from the '60s and '70s, with the balance tipping slightly towards the latter. Action by Hong Kong's Stephen TUNG 董瑋 makes heavy use of just-okay wire work and slow motion in long shots, and packs more punch in the close-up sparring and weapon work. Peter KAM 金培達's symphonic score is well above his norm here, partnering Su's direction and Cheung's cutting at all times, from rainy romance to nocturnal shenanigans. (Reflecting its Chinese title, Swords and Rain, the film makes frequent use of both.)
Producer John WOO 吳宇森 was reportedly on set the whole time, offering advice to Su, though there's no real trace of a Woo "signature" in the film. The Chinese end credits read "A film by John Woo (吳宇森製作). Directed and written by Su Chao-pin". The official English credits read "Directed by Su Chao-pin. Co-directed by John Woo".
The 119-minute version released in China features drastically different editing in its first 15 minutes, cross-cutting between several periods and showing actress Michelle Yeoh on screen at the start as Zeng Jing arrives in the Capital. The film then flashbacks to her past as Drizzle, yoyo-ing between her time with Buddhist monk Wisdom and her subsequent face operation. The opening 15 minutes in the international version (shown at Venice) are strictly linear, with Yeoh not seen until after the operation.
ContactSales: Outside Asia: Fortissimo Films, Amsterdam/Hong Kong (email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org); Asia: Media Asia, Hong Kong (email@example.com)
Premiere: Venice Film Festival (out of competition), 3 Sep 2010. Theatrical release: China, 28 Sep 2010; Hong Kong, 7 Oct 2010; Taiwan, 22 Oct 2010.
Presented by Beijing Galloping Horse Film & TV (CN), Media Asia Films (HK), Zhejiang Dongyang Dragon Entertainment Venture Investment (CN), Gamania Digital Entertainment (TW), Lumiere Motion Picture (TW), Beijing Heguchuan TV & Film (CN). Produced by Lion Rock Productions (HK). Executive producers: Li Ming, Peter Lam, Yan Ming, Albert Liu, May Su, Dai Zhengyu. Producers: John Woo, Terence Chang.
Script: Su Chao-pin. Photography: Horace Wong. Editing: Cheung Ka-fai. Music: Peter Kam. Production design: Yang Baigui, Simon So. Costume design: Emi Wada. Action: Stephen Tung. Sound: Wei He. Visual effects: Du Jiaju, Ren Yu. Post-production supervision: Angie Lam.
Cast: Michelle Yeoh (Zeng Jing), Jeong U-seong (Jiang Asheng), Wang Xueqi (The Wheel King/Cao Feng), Barbie Hsu (Turquoise Ye), Shawn Yue (Lei Bin), Kelly Lin (Drizzle), Guo Xiaodong (Zhang Renfeng), Jiang Yiyan (Tian Qingtong), Leon Dai (The Magician), Paw Hee-ching (Auntie Cai), Matt Wu (Killer Bear), Chin Shih-chieh (Doctor Li), Pace Wu (Kongdong Teal Sword), Calvin Li (Wisdom), Angeles Woo (Eater Bear).