Cast: Chow Yun-Fat, Liu Yi-Fei, Qui Xin-shi Alec Su, Hiroshi Tamaki
Running time: 103mins
The lowdown: Lavishly presented historical epic in the Curse of the Golden Flower tradition, charting the dying moments of the Han Dynasty which spanned 200 BC – 200 AD. Chow Yun-Fat is Chancellor Cao Cao, a warlord who has vanquished enemies threatening Alec Su’s foppish Emperor Xian. But, power plays in the Emperor’s court plus assassins targeting Cao Cao for death continue to threaten the nation’s peace. Low-key despite sumptuous visuals and beautiful costumes, this is still compelling historical drama.
The full verdict: Zhao Lin Shan makes a confident directorial debut with this drama about one of China’s (many) turbulent eras.
Over recent years the closing stages of the Han Dynasty has received numerous big screen retellings from John Woo’s Red Cliff, Donnie Yen’s The Lost Bladesman and Andy Lau’s Three Kingdoms.
Chow Yun-fat brings his charismatic gravitas to the role of Cao Cao, chancellor of the Han Dynasty, plagued by migraines and haunted by memories of the noble warriors he has slain in the name of peace.
Cao Cao has also positioned himself as unofficial Emperor, manipulating the anointed ruler of the land, the buffoonish Xian. But, Cao Cao’s son Cao Pi (Qui) also eyes the royal house.
Plus, two assassins Ling Ju (Liu) and Mu Shun (Tamaki) have been dispatched by a mysterious organisation to kill the chancellor.
A huge amount of information is thrown at the audience in the opening sequences, resulting in fifteen minutes of catch-up to understand who is who. Scene-setting title cards would have been welcome.
But, principal relationships are ultimately easy to understand and The Assassins presents the period with Shakespearean levels of intrigue, where betrayal, corruption, lust and murder are dominant motivations.
Vivid performances and attractive visuals and score from House of Flying Daggers’ cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding and composer Shigeru Umebayashi all lay on a handsome gloss.
Zhao betrays Western influences with nods to Batman Begins and 300 in the action sequences, although this is more about backroom politics than astonishing wirework choreography.
Ignore the generic title and enjoy this solid recreation of Chinese history.
Extras: (Blu-ray only)
Chow Yun-Fat Featurette
Director Zhao Lin Shan Featurette
Behind the scenes
Note: the extras were not included on the press disc.