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Reign of Assassins (Jianyu)

dir: Chao-Bin Su, John Woo
[img_assist|nid=1344|title=Yes, lovely swords, but are you going to do anything interesting with them?|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=320|height=480]
It’s strange, and a little bit embarrassing that I am still as gullible as I am at the age that I am. I saw a clip for this flick during Potato-Head Pomeranz and Old Farmer Stratton’s Movie Show a few weeks ago, mentioned as getting a lot of people excited at some festival, possibly this year’s Venice festival.

A few seconds of people fighting, and a few excitable words from Margaret, and I was somehow convinced that this was the flick of the year, a continuation of the good work John Woo was currently doing (after the success of Red Cliff), and all around another in the exciting high-end line of wuxia (martial arts) flicks that started with Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and resulted in other dazzling entries like Hero and House of Flying Daggers.

And so I bought into all this meaningless hype, as if I was some teenage girl buying Twilight merchandise, or some object Justin Beiber or Lady Gaga might have touched with some part of their anatomy as some point in time.

And what did I get for this emotional and financial investment, in getting excited about this flick and going out of my way to see it? What’s my recompense, my due, my pay back?

Well, it’s given me another chance to write a review. And for that, at least, I should be grateful.

Reign of Assassins is utterly conventional, utterly indistinguishable from literally thousands and thousands of other Chinese / Hong Kong flicks made over the last fifty years, and, as such, really doesn’t warrant any more attention than any other flick. In fact it deserves a bit less, perhaps, for not being exactly as awesome as I thought it would be. People should be punished for letting me down. You’ve been warned.

Not too harshly, though. My expectations were just too high, and there was no basis for them being all the way up there tickling the nether-feathers of birds flying over the Himalayas. It’s just exactly what it is: a period piece action flick where lots of people chase other people around and do wacky shitty in between taking time out for the most chaste and passionless romances possible.

It’s not all bad, though. Michelle Yeoh is a delight in everything she appears in, and I happily go out of my way to see everything she appears in. She’s the main character here, and she herself is possibly the only interesting character with abundant screen-time, with the possible exception of the main villain.

I don’t really believe that John Woo co-directed this flick, only because the dramatic scenes are handled competently, and the long, grinding gaps between action scenes are so long and grindy, and the action scenes themselves aren’t that spectacular. But I can believe Woo has some involvement in the thoroughly, brazenly stupid script, because, really, it’s like someone decided to remake Face/Off in the classical era.

Our main character, as far as I can tell, was called Drizzle. At least that’s what the subtitle monkeys translated her name to. She’s called Drizzle, because, like a drizzling rain, she can soak you to the bone. Except, instead of raining on you, she rains down sword slashes with her tremendous Water Shedding Technique, which involves using a bendy sword that still kills you even if you block it, because it bends around and stabs you anyway.

She, being Michelle Yeoh’s character, just to remind you, worked for a league of assassins called the Black Stone, or Black Stones, or Dark Stone, or Dark Crystal, or Black Eyed Keys, something like that. She, along with these other nutjobs, are tasked with finding the remains of a legendary monk called Bodhi (meaning perhaps that they’re looking for Patrick Swayze’s corpse from Point Break), whose very desiccated remains are believed to possess supernatural power. It is said that whoever possesses this dead smelly shmuck’s body will rule the martial arts world.

Personally, that sounds terrible, because then you’d end up spending all your time in pungent dojos smelling the stale sweaty feet of thousands of teenage boys, smiling painfully during tournaments and handing out trophies to spotty fuckers all day every day. It’s a fate worse than death, surely.

Drizzle, after she gets half of Patrick Swayze’s corpse, which looks mostly like monkey jerky, has a change of heart after killing, I dunno, her thousandth victim, including a minister and his son, but she then kills some guy she was banging, gets religion, and decides to find some doctor a thousand years ago who can do really great plastic surgery in order to change her face.

It’s not really that important in the scheme of things, but I do have to relate what the ‘treatment’ is for getting the actress that plays the character at first, to look like Michelle Yeoh: poisonous burrowing insects are to be placed in her nasal cavities, which are to eat away at the bone for a few weeks, until the good doctor slices her cheeks open, removes the insects, and then sews her face up with golden thread, which means she’ll heal without scars.

It should take about three months. At the latest, at the very latest, her face will be ready Tuesday.

Is that one of the nuttiest fucking things you’ve ever heard? What mescaline or meow meow went down and on during that script meeting? Couldn’t they have just said something more plausible or sane like “Let’s just say a wizard did it?”

It shouldn’t really matter, but it was one of those things of such gargantuan idiocy that it made me chuckle contemptuously every few minutes. There are many minutes in this film, way too many opportunities for just this sort of chuckling.

Drizzle now moves to the capital, and lives selling cloth at some alleyway stall. A shy and bumbling klutz called Ah-Sheng (Woo-sung Jung) falls in love with her, and pursues her by always being around when it rains in order to help her pack up, and then stands awkwardly next to her under shelter.

This, this is the stuff of legend, this is. That standing and not making eye-contact stuff? That’s fucking poetry, that is. I could watch hours and hours of it.

And, lucky for me, the movie provides what feels like hours and hours of it. Eventually, these two star-crossed likers get married, and, wouldn’t you know it, that’s when Drizzle’s former co-workers and boss from Dark Stone Assassins & Shoe Repair Pty Ltd track her down, because they need the other half of the monkey corpse.

For reasons. Good reasons? Silly reasons? Sexy reasons? All of the above, none of the above, take your pick. It does lead to a decent ancient bank robbery sequence, which was probably one of the vague highlights of the flick.

Of course there’s going to be a showdown, and everyone’s going to fight everyone, and there’s shifting identities, double crosses, revelations, surprises, each more surprising than the last. And it’s all going to be handled fairly well, though not to that A standard of those ‘internationalised’ wuxia flicks that we were seeing for a while. This is a generic Chinese flick with everything in it of a bland and dependable quality. Michelle Yeoh is not, by her very luminous nature bland, but she can only do what she can with what she’s given. Even more dispiriting for me is the obvious fact that she’s no longer interested in or able to do her own fight work. For one of the first times I can remember, instead of watching someone of her calibre beating the crap out of a poor stunt man or woman, key fights clearly involve stunt women standing in for her as well.

And the choreography and fight scenes are not really up to the standard I demand. For something that was sold as such, or at least implied as such, it’s not up to snuff, or whatever the Tang or Sung Dynasty equivalent is.

What takes the shine off even more for this flick is that I saw it in close proximity with Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, which was far more entertaining, look great, and had a decent story without being wall-to-wall fight scenes (especially since it’s a mystery, not a straight wuxia fu fest). And it’s a return to form for Tsui Hark, which people have been waiting a long time for.

Reign of Assassins is not a return to form for John Woo, in whatever capacity he was involved. Whoever directed this lazy thing really wasn’t putting that much effort into it, so neither should you or I, for that matter.

6 times it shames me and my ancestors that I was so thoroughly sucked in by the hype out of 10

“Do you want to know why I killed my first husband? He was impotent. But you, you’re not impotent. You’re not even a man.” – harsh words, hard, accurate words - Reign of Assassins