The Assassins (2012)
Director: Zhao Linshan
Writers: Wang Bin
Starring: Chow Yun-fat, Liu Yifei, Hiroshi Tamaki, Annie Yi, and Qiu Xinzhi

The Plot: Our film today takes place during the Eastern Han Dynasty in ancient China. The masterful general Cao Cao (Chow Yun-fat) has done well in securing the lands and has coerced Emperor Xian (Alec-Su) into giving him the title of “King of Wei.” Cao Cao’s other official title is of chancellor, but many feel that he will eventually be emperor. Cao Cao’s son, Cao Pi (Qiu Xinzhi), has recently found himself in an affair with the empress, but his own personal greed has him lusting over the throne even ahead of his father. While these petty grievances are being disputed amongst the wealthy, the real threat to the chancellor lies within his own castle. Two assassins, who have been trained since childhood, have secretly moved in as servants to the throne. This duo secretly intend to kill Cao Cao, and it is only a matter of time before they find the perfect opportunity to strike.

The Review
The direction that Chinese cinema has taken within the past few years has been quite remarkable. Although the films have not generally been as critically acclaimed, at least in the West, as they have been in years previous, there has been a tremendous amount of growth within the industry. The Chinese marketplace has stood up in a way that has certainly made their films into formidable adversaries to the West. More Chinese films are being released in the states and bigger retail outlets are now carrying films from this region. The use of CGI has become the standard instead of the exception, and the movies are become flashier with each year that passes. Although the smaller and more experimental productions aren’t getting the attention that they once did, this mainstream appeal within the Chinese film industry is something entirely new and different. For good or for bad, Chinese cinema is taking huge strides at the moment and if they start to streamline their films in a way that better appeals to the West, this new movement could be unstoppable. However, that is not the case at this moment. The Assassins can be seen as a clear example of this narrative division that exists between Western and modern Chinese sensibilities.

If you’ve been keeping up with films like White Vengeance or any of the other modern epics streaming out of China here lately, one thing that can be expected is high production values. The Assassins is no different in this regard. The film looks very good, as anyone might expect. The compositions are all quite lovely, and the movie jumps around in several distinct locations. The battle sequences, in particular, have distinctly different tones and pallets to them, which makes for a rather intriguing sight. The vastness of the production also can’t be ignored. The number of extras used is ridiculous, and I also have to give the movie credit for using CGI in an intelligent way. The film fleshes out many of the action scenes by reproducing the grand scale that this story requires. The CG created extras are indiscernible from the actual living characters being used on the battlefield. The result is a massive looking film that looks absolutely stunning. From the large scale views of the various castles to the brilliantly compiled cast, on paper The Assassins has everything going in its favor.

Unfortunately, the sterile and polished look of the film is not enough to guarantee interesting subject matter. The general beats of the film are easy enough to spot and the dedication to formula ultimately hurts the movie. Although it occasionally holds a few surprises, The Assassins can not outrun being relatively predictable. Despite the overencumbered plots and subplots, an astute audience member will see the patterns unfurling within the early half of this movie. During the first half of the movie we see armies attempting to assassinate the Chancellor (Chow Yun-fat), and it is evident that they are not likely to succeed since their whole purpose was to act as a plot device for our lead character to say “if an entire platoon can’t kill him, how will I?” Also, the bullying from Chow Yun-Fat’s character is very typical of films such as this. His character acts by the typical code of all tyrants and many of his moves throughout the film can be calculated by an attentive audience member. To be sure though, any audience member who hopes to keep up with The Assassins is going to have to remain quite attentive to all of the random plots and subplots that flow into and out of the story.

The film somewhat denied all of my expectations. While I figured that I would be in for a martial arts epic about majestic battlefields and secret cabals of assassins going to war, the truth is that this is a purely dramatic film. In the same classical vein as a Shakespearian play or one of Akira Kurosawa’s films about feudal Japan, the film relies almost entirely on its criss-crossing character motivations. However, The Assassins of course has no place in being compared to either of those artists. It is a movie that relies far more on the tropes and ideas established by other artists within the past and does very little to inspire its own creations. So, as a drama, this is a movie that must rely on its storytelling in order to keep the audience entertained. Unfortunately, it seems that The Assassins becomes bogged down by its own very dry and very by-the-numbers narrative. Similar to a very bland teledrama, the pace of this story is slowed down considerably along the way. Factions and agreements change as we progress through the movie, but there is very little that ties any of this together in a certifiably interesting way. At the end of the day, we’re left with a rather stale production that looks very attractive and somehow features a solid performance from Chow Yun-fat. This veteran actor once again proves that he can make anything into a prestigious ceremony, and he delivers a very inspiring performance despite the entire plot never reaching any sort of true clarity.

The Conclusion
It is very hard to give a movie like The Assassins a bad review, because it is a technical marvel in many regards. It has a lot of great intentions behind it and there are moments within that seem incredibly spirited. However, the plot does indeed meander within the production and I’m sure that many audience members will lose the plot after the first thirty minutes or so. So, this one is a true toss up. I ultimately give it a two out of five. There are strong elements, but not enough to raise it high enough to be something special.

Screenshots not taken from the Well Go DVD/Bluray