The Assassin’s Blade (2008)
Director: Jingle Ma
Writers: Chan Po-chun, Jingle Ma, Ng Ka-keung, Yeung Sin-ling, and Wong Nga-man
Starring: Wu Chun, Charlene Choi, Hu Ge, and Ti Lung

The Plot: The Assassin’s Blade is a modern retelling of the popular legend best known as The Butterfly Lovers. In this story, Zhu Yanzhi (Charlene Choi) is a beautiful young woman who must dress herself as a man in order to be trained within the Soul Ease Clan. Yanzhi wants to become proficient in the martial arts so that she can protect her family. Luckily, wearing men’s clothing proves to be more than enough to fool everyone who surrounds her, so Yanzhi quickly establishes herself within this clan of martial artists. While here, she meets Brother Shan (Wu Chun) who quickly scoops Yanzhi up under his wing. He starts to protect Yanzhi and they develop a very close relationship. It is inevitably revealed to Shan that Yanzhi is indeed a beautiful woman, and their relationship begins to further develop into a romance. However, problems arise when Brother Ma (Hu Ge), a childhood friend of Yanzhi, shows up at Soul Ease and lies to Yanzhi in order to bring her home. When she arrives back at her home, she discovers that her parents have given her away in an arranged marriage. She is supposed to marry Ma, but her heart still belongs to Shan. Will true love prevail or will Yanzhi be forced to bend to her family’s wishes?

The Review
Jingle Ma is a filmmaker that definitely manages to inspire discussion amongst fans of Asian cinema. Whether for good or bad, he usually manages to spur some interesting, and often heated, conversations. The Assassin’s Blade is a 2008 Jingle Ma production that has found distribution here in the United States via the fine folks over at Well Go USA. While the movie manages to feel like more of a throwback title due to its style and photography, representing the Wuxia films of the 90s, it still retains the same large scope that modern Chinese cinema has come to represent. As with many Jingle Ma productions, this is one that should inspire a great deal of dialogue amongst those who watch it. While it seems likely that the movie will garner some fans, it in facts targets a very broad demographic, but for views who are familiar with traditional Hong Kong cinema, the movie might prove to hold few too many surprises. Add to this a fairly underwhelming love story and you have a movie that tries hard but reaches few peaks.

As previously mentioned, The Assassin’s Blade often has the look and feel of an early nineties Hong Kong film. Specifically, it visually has the soft colorization found in films such as The Swordsman or even Once Upon a Time in China. While this would normally be a good thing, as the decade produced an army of absolutely brilliant films, the movie doesn’t seem to borrow much more than the aesthetic qualities of such films. Instead, it simply appears to share a similar atmosphere of low budget artistry. While The Assassin’s Blade is still a big budget spectacle (as is expected in modern Chinese cinema), there is thankfully a quaint atmosphere to be found here. That visual quality and the smaller cast of characters does seem to represent a more unique focus during this modern era. Yet, along with the “classic” atmosphere, the movie also finds itself borrowing from traditional genre cinema in some less-than-refreshing ways. The biggest cliche in Chinese cinema history is played within the first few minutes of Assassin’s Blade, and despite having such a larger budget than something like Wing Chun (94, Yuen Woo-Ping) the classic “women dressed up like a man” gag still seems as dull and silly as it has ever been. Likely this tradition of females wearing a man’s clothing, and somehow fooling everyone around her (despite OBVIOUSLY being a beautiful woman), goes back to the Chinese operas of the past. However, with modern makeup FX it seems as if this would become an easier pill to swallow. Instead, The Assassin’s Blade takes no time to update the formula, and like most other areas within the film, the content simply comes off as being rather tired.

What is Assassin’s Blade, if not a martial arts action title? Well, there are a few different ideas at play in this film, but primarily the love story told between Shan and Yanzhi is of the most interest. Although this story, which is deep seated in Chinese culture and dates back over a thousand years, is considered to be an equivalent to Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, this presentation of the story unfortunately does not have a lot of the bite that might make a great adaptation. Whether it comes from the general story or the malaise within the script, the plot acts as a showcase for cheap thrills and a romance that blossoms without much understandable sentiment. Going back to the Romeo & Juliet comparisons, in the most successful adaptations of that story the love affair between our main couple is treated like a whirlwind of romanticism that defies logic or explanation. When this is done correctly, and when the actors have a great deal of chemistry, it can work phenomenally well. However, when you fill the screen up with 40 minutes of farce and subtle interludes, then finally have the male protagonist “discover his love” after finally catching a glance at the female lead’s bosom… the impact is certainly dulled down to a certain degree. It seems far more difficult to empathize with these star-crossed lovers than it really should. True, their relationship is spurred along inside of a whirlwind, but the audience is rarely clued into what might have brought these two together. There are no long monologues or soliloquies to describe their love affair, it’s just something that apparently happens.

With those negatives out of the way, The Assassin’s Blade does have its fair share of positive qualities. When the drama ramps up during the third act, and the audience can finally get behind the character of Yangzhi (because who honestly supports forcing a woman to marry someone that she doesn’t love?), the movie really starts to become something. This is where the movie finally finds a direction that works. The characters start to show some diversity, the drama is palpable, and there’s even a tremendous action sequence that finds Shan fighting off an army of warriors who fire arrows into his body like a pincushion. If the audience can stick through the first forty minutes, then the final half does actually begin to compensate for some of the dull action during that first half. Yet, there are still hiccups along the way. The melodrama is about as thick as it gets, and only select audience members will look past the heightened levels of drama to see some true emotion within the story.

The Conclusion
There are numerous ups and downs during The Assassin’s Blade and its audience might prove to be more niche than the filmmakers had at first hoped. Overall, it’s an entertaining experience, but it washes over the viewer and doesn’t leave much of an impact. It gets a two out of five. It’s a beautiful looking piece of work, but it lacks emotional resonance, spectacular action, or conflicted/interesting characters.

Shan (Wu Chun) who quickly scoops Yanzhi

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