HONG KONG 2010 Directed by: John Woo, Su Chao-Pin Written by: Su Chao-Pin Produced by: John Woo, Terence Chang Cinematography by: Wong Wing-Hung, Arthur Wong Editing by: Cheung Ka-Fai Music by: Peter Kam Cast: Michelle Yeoh, Jung Woo-Sung, Wang Xueqi, Barbie Hsu, Shawn Yue, Kelly Lin, Guo Xiaodong, Jiang Yiyan, Leon Dai, Paw Hee-Ching, Pace Wu, Li Zonghan, Jiang Yiyan
We are still far away from a real renaissance, but with two small masterpieces launched around the same time that are reviving the best traditions of Hong Kong cinema we are kind of spoiled for choice: no matter if you see DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME or REIGN OF ASSASSINS first, you’ll end up coming to the same conclusion – that you just saw a film that looks and feels as good as Hong Kong movies did twenty years ago.
And again it is no surprise that REIGN OF ASSASSINS is helmed by a veteran director of the golden age of Hong Kong cinema: after RED CLIFF John Woo has returned to China once again, this time telling the tale of the mummified remains of an Indian monk that are supposed to bear magical powers. Various parties are after the treasure, including the Dark Stone gang whose top assassin Drizzle (Kelly Lin) gets hold of the remains, but decides to live an ordinary life instead of returning to the gang after meeting a monk and master swordsman who sacrifices himself to enlighten her.
She changes her appearance through surgery and assumes the identity of Zeng Jing (Michelle Yeoh). She moves to the city and opens a store selling cloth, and soon after marries messenger Ah Sheng. They could have lived happily ever after, but the script thinks otherwise: the Dark Stone gang is still in pursuit of the remains, and their leader Wheel King (Xueqi Wang) is upping the ante by sending three assassins to hunt down Drizzle. Lei Bin (Shawn Yue), The Magician (Leon Dai) and sexy but merciless killer Turqoise (Barbie Hsu) are are getting closer to the truth, while some more surprising twists complicate things further. Everything gears towards the last stand-off between Drizzle and her old gang, with some uninvited guests are joining the party.
For a Hong Kong swordsplay flick (new or old) REIGN OF ASSASSINS has a very solid story, detailed characterization and inventive script. All is quite right: the movie’s depth and complexity is intriguing, but never reaches the kind of confusion that have made movies like SWORDSMAN 2 as tiring as an accounting seminar. On the contrary, REIGN OF ASSASSINS achieves a great level of integration with the story driving the action and vice versa. I didn’t know what to expect at first with Su Chao-Pin being under my radar in the past, but it must be said that the script is fabulous.
The same must be said about the action: the choreography is state-of-the-art, a very modern yet artistic interpretation of swordsplay, with spectacular gimmicks and incredible pace, as beautiful to watch as it is breathtaking. Mr. Woo has teamed with legendary DOP Wong Wing-Hung (A CHINESE GHOST STORY, THE KILLER, HARDBOILED) and it is obvious from the beginning that he enjoyed shooting the film quite a bit more than BEAUTY ON DUTY (that’s only my assumption, of course). However, action hasn’t looked that good for a while, and it’s not a coincidence that it comes from the people who originally turned made in Hong Kong into a valuable trademark as far as filmmaking goes.
What brings me back to Tsui Hark’s DETECTIVE DEE and what I wrote about it earlier: DETECTIVE DEE and REIGN OF ASSASSINS are not exceptional for what they are inventing, but because of what they are preserving, or bringing back to the silver screen. Both mark the return to Pre-‘97 Hong Kong filmmaking, and while they are of course products of 2010 they seem as imaginative, untroubled, powerful and touching as movies were back then.
Those who don’t care much about the past or know very little about it should note however that contemporary Hong Kong cinema doesn’t get any better than this. If REIGN OF ASSASSINS, or DETECTIVE DEE for that matter, don’t convince you this kind of cinema simply isn’t for you. And all the dedicated fans will be pleased to hear that, at least for a moment, Mr. Tsui and Mr. Woo have put back the magic into Hong Kong films. Enjoy it while it lasts.