December 01, 2010

Reign of Assassins

Here's another guest post by Patrick, who most recently brought us a review of The Incredibles. Without further ado...

Michelle Yeoh is awesome. That's why I picked up Reign of Assassins. I was only slightly disappointed.

I will summarize the plot of the film as best as I can because much of it is told in flashbacks that aren't announced as flashbacks, and with the added difficulty of different actors playing the main characters. The film is the story of Drizzle, first played by Kelly Lin, one of the major assassins of the Dark Stone: their leader is the Wheel King (Xueqi Wang) and the other known assassins are the Magician (Leon Dai) and Lei Bin (Shawn Yue) - and there are many faceless ninja-type followers, too. The Dark Stone is out to get the mummified corpse of a holy monk - legend says that you can learn kung-fu from the mummy. The corpse was split in two, and at the beginning of the movie Drizzle flees with one half and quite a lot of silver.

Drizzle intends to use the mummy for personal power, but then meets Wisdom, a buddhist monk who defeats her in battle but sacrifices his own life so she would have another chance at hers. She decides to change her life and looks up a surgeon who changes her appearance along with it, turning Kelly Lin into Michelle Yeoh. In her new life, Drizzle falls in love with and marries a lowly courier (Woo-sund Jung), and all could be well if not for the unfortunate day when the two happen to be in a bank as it gets robbed. Drizzle has to use her kung-fu, and just like that the Dark Stone catches up to her, complete with her replacement, Turquoise (Barbie Hsu).

As a general comment, Reign of Assassins is filled with soap opera elements of unlikely coincidences and tragic resolutions, all in the guise of karma - the film shows what a buddhist culture looks like. With the purposeful thunderstorms and all the karma going around, it does feel similar to Christian films like, say, The Book of Eli, so if you have a low tolerance for this (or for kung fu hitting acupuncture points and herbal teas producing multiple offspring), just be aware this film contains it.

But what this site is about is neither buddhism nor Traditional Chinese Medicine, so how do the women fare? Well, Drizzle is pretty great, actually. She does get turned to the path of good by Wisdom, i.e. a man, and there is a scene where she is badly hurt and protected by a man, as well, but that didn't lessen my enjoyment of her character. Both Michelle Yeoh and Kelly Lin kick several asses, and Yeoh even weathers her old neighbor's attempts at hooking her up with seemingly every bachelor around. And yes, she wins the final fight by copying how Wisdom beat her, which makes her just a little less awesome.

My true problem with the film, however, is with Turquoise. Drizzle's courtship to the courier consists of a few times standing under a roof while it's raining, and just like that they're married - I don't even think you see them kiss. Turqoise, on the other hand, is evil, which we know because she's always sneering, and because she is overtly sexual. In the beginning, we learn she murdered her fiancé and his parents because she didn't want to marry him. I loved that nod towards personal freedom before it became clear that she is supposed to be clearly wrong in defying tradition. She later says the only reason why she killed her husband is because he was impotent, and because the Wheel King is a eunuch (he's only killing people to get the monk's mummy and regenerate his genitals), he buries her alive. Which seems to be okay with the film, while at the same time it makes the deaths of the other two major assassins a lot more tragic - one even gets to go home to his family before dying of blood loss.

So we have a fairly good female character in Drizzle, who nevertheless adheres to tradition, and a fairly reprehensible character with Turquoise, making it hard to judge this film on a whole. Which pretty much sums up the whole experience: there are fantastic moments here, but also scenes where I was bored silly. Some scenes are played seriously, and others seem to come right out of a pulp novel.

The best scene either way happens pretty early on, where Drizzle defeats some assassins sent after her: these assassins are comprised of an elderly couple, a younger couple, and a young boy, making this one of the most age-diverse fight scenes I have ever seen (outside of Hot Fuzz).

Still, in the end, Reign of Assassins punishes anyone who challenged the status quo, and if you behave, you might get a little freedom, but also have to be a doting wife who cooks and mends shoes, and seriously: Michelle Yeoh is far too awesome for that.

2 Stars: So Close



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