|Let’s get this out of the way first: Chow Yun-Fat was supposed to appear in John Woo’s Red Cliff films but he dropped out at the eleventh hour and was replaced by Tony Leung Chiu-Wai. No big deal — the Red Cliff movies ruled and we got Chow wearing a Hawaiian shirt in Dragonball: Evolution. Still, Chow + Woo in Red Cliff remains one of Chinese cinema’s most tantalizing “what ifs” and it’s natural to lament what could have been. The Assassins is your partial make-up, a Three Kingdoms-era drama chronicling the later years of Cao Cao, the ambitious king of Wei who got his goods handed to him in Red Cliff. Chow dons elaborate Yee Chung-Man-designed robes and armor to portray the character, bringing his undeniable physical presence and legendary acting chops to the table. What he doesn’t bring is a cast or crew as good as other recent Three Kingdoms films, so The Assassins unfortunately and unsurprisingly falls a little short.
Directed by Zhao Lin-Shan, The Assassins chronicles a later period in Cao Cao’s life, after he suffered defeat at Red Cliff (chronicled in, uh, Red Cliff) and presided over the death of his frenemy Guan Yu (as referenced in The Lost Bladesman). With China still split into three kingdoms, the aging Chancellor Cao Cao finds himself beset on all sides, numerous parties jockeying for his defeat or death. Chief among these parties is Emperor Xian (Alec Su), a puppet emperor who’s subject to the whims of the military, and Cao Cao demonstrates this power by nominally deferring to Xian while passive-aggressively imposing his will. Cao Cao’s own son Cao Pi (Qiu Xin-Zhi ) may want his father gone to solidify his own personal power and pave the way for Xian’s downfall – with the added bonus that Cao Pi will now be free to ravish Xian’s fetching wife, the Empress Fu Shou (Annie Yi). Cao Pi could also do with a little less of his father’s needling.
Cao Cao seems aware of this dissension, but braves it gamely. Adding further tension is a ticking clock, as a prophecy states that when four stars align in the heavens, the end of a dynasty is nigh. Well, those four stars are about to align so this could be when Cao Cao either makes his move or is removed from power. This conflict is well established but also stagey and indirect; The Assassins is more of a chamber drama than an epic saga, with most of the tension conveyed via people trolling others with condescension masked as friendship. There’s plenty of intrigue and double-talk, like when Cao Cao shows up at Xian’s palace to offer a feast of raw bear meat, the subtext being, “If you don’t eat the meat, you are disrespecting me and want me dead.” This is passive-aggression on an epic and fatal scale, and there’s adequate tension and entertainment in seeing the players jockey for backroom bragging rights. On a cerebral level, The Assassins engages.
Emotionally? Not as much. The Assassins offers some emotional connections, but they’re routine if not awkward in their story placement. Among the many out for Cao Cao’s head are Ling Ju (Liu Yifei) and Mu Shun (Tamaki Hiroshi), two orphans raised and trained with the express purpose of assassinating Cao Cao. Mu Shun had an unwilling operation and is now a eunuch in the Emperor’s court, while Ling Ju doubles as Cao Cao’s mistress. Thanks to an extended story detail, Ling Ju maintains a special allure for Cao Cao, while she struggles to understand just who this tyrant Cao Cao is. Meanwhile, Ling Ju and Mu Shun share an unrequited passion — but you know, there’s the little problem with that operation he had. These subplots add emotional resonance to The Assassins, but the characters seem almost extraneous to the other drama. Despite the actors getting top billing beneath Chow Yun-Fat, Liu and Hiroshi feel like they belong in a separate film.
The Assasssins was partly inspired by the reputed discovery in 2009 of Cao Cao’s tomb, in which the body of a 20 year-old woman was found buried alongside Cao Cao. The unidentified young woman served as the inspiration for Ling Ju — so if someone wants to know why this fictional character is propped up so in The Assassins, well, there’s your answer. Ling Ju is given further connection to Three Kingdom’s lore with manufactured ties to other famous figures, but she is such an obvious construct that she never feels credible. Besides the script giving her a glorified place in Cao Cao’s heart, Ling Ju narrates the whole film, offering blow-by-blow voiceover explaining and justifying Cao Cao’s character. She also muses pseudo-philosophically on the nature of life, death, fate, etc. If this all seems familiar, that’s because it is. There’s meaning here but the content is nothing special, and represents the same postmodern “artistic” look at jiang hu that was novel back in nineties Hong Kong Cinema.
Furthering the film’s mediocrity are its lackluster look and unremarkable action. Battle sequences are stylishly empty, but at least the slashes and smashes serve up some blood. Performances range across the spectrum; Liu Yifei is average while Tamaki Hiroshi and Yao Lu (as Imperial physician Ji Ben) fare better. However, for entertainment value, few can match Alec Su’s Emperor Xian. Su plays the Emperor as a prissy queen who plots the death of his detractors behind-the-scenes while hilariously and unconvincingly acting innocent about everything he’s doing. Chow Yun-Fat’s Cao Cao is oddly less charismatic than either Zhang Fengyi’s or Jiang Wen’s take on the character. Still, Chow ably portrays the Wei king as a haunted pragmatist — a man who’s willing to be bad to serve the greater good. This is a nice but also very familiar theme. Fifteen years ago, epic stories of emperors and assassins still had novelty, but no longer. Assassins is not bad for yet another genre entry — but that’s all it really is.