"Monty Cristo" here once again,
The good folks at Well Go USA sent over an exclusive clip from THE ASSASSINS for us to run, and I figured I might as well run a short review in the same breath, since I just watched this one the other day. Twitch ran the trailer yesterday. Here's the clip:
THE ASSASSINS stars Chow Yun-fat as warlord Cao Cao in his later years, some time after the Battle of Red Cliffs. For those who don't follow ancient Chinese history (Three Kingdoms period specifically), I would compare his characterization and mindset here to be rather like the portrayal of Che Guevara in the second part of Steven Soderbergh's CHE, to some extent.
Cao Cao is a revolutionary constantly watching his back, trusting no one, and with the blood of thousands on his hands. He is beloved by his underlings and those who live on the grounds of his estate, whom he treats as family, but he is feared and hated by those surrounding the current Emperor, as well as the orphaned children of his many slain adversaries.
The movie's protagonist and narrator is Gong Ling Ju, a young woman who has been raised and trained to one day assassinate Cao Cao. She and many other orphaned children around her have been given the single purpose of destroying the "tyrant" Cao Cao.
Our heroine falls in love with another orphaned assassin-in-training, and before she is sent off to pose as a mistress for Cao Cao, a tragedy befalls the would-be lovers that does not take either of their lives, but rather...something that makes any possible future they would dream of have together impossible.
In many adaptations of this period in history, Cao Cao is portrayed as the power-mad tyrant that these imprisoned young adults think him to be. THE ASSASSINS goes to great lengths to flesh out his motivations and character, so he is presented here as the revolutionary with the weight of the entire nation on his shoulders. His nobility and honor as portrayed here do not clash with the historical accounts I've read, and instead seem to further prove that history really is written by the winners.
Ju starts out focused on nothing but her mission of murder, but as in so many stories of this type, she starts getting to know the heart of the warlord and sees the good that he does. Cao Cao suffers from tremendous headaches and night terrors, and she seems to somewhat ease his suffering. His mind is spread across multiple concerns: his son's affair with the Empress, the incompetence of the Emperor (who bides time singing Opera to himself), and the entire royal court plotting against him.
Though Cao Cao may seem distracted or oblivious early on, we quickly get the impression that much more is going on in his head than we initially assume. Chow Yun-fat's keen mind makes the multi-layered thought process of Cao Cao entirely believable, even though it is staggeringly, almost superhumanly formidable. I've seen him in many (probably most) of what is considered Chow's greatest work, and this performance absolutely ranks alongside them.
Where many characters in the film believe Cao Cao vulnerable to attack and only focused on himself, the warlord's true focus is always on maintaining the viability of the Han Dynasty and the unification of China.
The story includes plenty of trademark Chinese costumed melodrama throughout, but the philosophical and internal struggles within the man whom history has painted a villain make for great viewing on top of the excellent action sequences...even the one that almost goes a bit too goofy with a net of bouncy grappling rope. You don't have to be a Chinese history nerd to enjoy the movie on its own terms, but that doesn't mean you may not enjoy watching the two-part RED CLIFF as well as WHITE VENGEANCE alongside this. The stories of both films concern this general era of history and some of the same characters.