If there’s one thing I’ve learned from watching numerous Chinese historical dramas on Blu-Ray this past year, it’s that Chinese moviegoers must know a lot more about their country’s history than Americans do ours. With little exposition, these films plunge the viewer into complicated situations where prior knowledge is essential to finding one’s bearings. As a foreigner, I often have no idea what’s going on at first. Thus, my reviews should be read with the understanding that I am not a part of the target audience and I often find these works frustrating for their inaccessibility.
That being said, it’s unlikely I would have felt any better about the big-budget soap-opera that is “The Assassins” had I just known more about the history that led up to the events it depicts. Writer Wang Bin and director Zhao Linshan take the legacy of Cao Cao (Chow Yun-fat), a chancellor at the end of the Han Dynasty, and reduce it to two overwrought relationships. The first is the ill-fated romance between Ling Ju (Liu Yifei) and Mu Shun (Hiroshi Tamaki), who were both trained to assassinate Cao Cao as children and now serve him as adults, awaiting the perfect opportunity to strike. And if that’s not superficially dramatic enough for you, there’s also the relationship between Cao Cao and son Cao Pi (Qiu Xinzhi), who flirts with an assassination plot of his own, tempted by the possibility that he could then become Emperor rather than his father.
The production is not without virtues: Chow Yun-fat plays the storied chancellor with a commanding presence that keeps Cao Cao from becoming a one-dimensional villain, the period production design is lavish, and an early assassination attempt features astonishing wire-work. But “The Assassins” is ultimately a slog because it never decides what it wants to be: it’s too melodramatic and stylized to work as a legitimate portrayal of history, and too convoluted with historical details to play as straightforward Shakespearean theater. By the time the action-packed finale rolls around, only those with a particular interest in the material will have any investment in the outcome.
Blu-Ray Video and Audio: Another good transfer from Well Go USA. While the video has a rather soft appearance, this was presumably due to the type of 35mm stock that cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding shot on, perhaps to give the production a more “ancient” aesthetic. The DTS 5.1 HD MA audio, however, is sharp and well-defined, thunderous during the action sequences and clear during the dialogue-driven ones.
Special Features: A standard-schmandard “behind the scenes” featurette that runs just under 15 minutes and the film’s trailer are included. Other than that, this disc comes up empty on extras.
Movie Grade: C-
Disc Grade: A- for presentation, D for extras
The Verdict: Skip it, unless highly interested in this specific history