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The Assassins - Movie Poster
Original Title:
Tong que tai

China 2012


Zhao Linshan

Chow Yun-Fat
Liu Yifei
Hiroshi Tamaki
Alec Su
Yan Ni
Roy Cheung
Ni Dahong
Nie Yuan
Yao Lu

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The Assassins

Story: Cao Cao (Chow Yun-Fat) is the ruler of the Wei kingdom, but one day a prophecy is made that a new dynasty is about to dawn when the four elematal stars align. That day is soon. The country is destabilized because of the inaptness of emperor Xian (Alec Su). After the emperor hears rumors about Cao Cao wanting his throne he tries to have the king of Wei eliminated. However, that's not that easy when it comes to an experienced general. A plan long in the making could prove fruitful, though. It has been put in motion several years ago: a few children of parents that have been killed by Cao Cao are trained to become assassins, among them Lingju (Liu Yifei) and Mu Shun (Hiroshi Tamaki), who are now both set on the king of Wei. Lingju has the best chances to succeed, since Cao Cao is admiring her and she is often around him. But slowly she starts to have doubts concerning the plan, which promises her freedom at the end, as the ruler has actually the peace and welfare of the people in his mind.

Review: The Three Kingdoms have always been a popular subject for Chinese period movies. After several action-packed flicks released revolving around the subject "The Assassins" now puts a palace intrigue into the foreground. Because of this the movie is very appealing storywise, yet when it comes to the narration it struggles with some weaknesses. Numerous jumps and shifts of focus count among them as do too many characters, which in respect to the rather short running time of the film get only a raw deal. Still, the well-written screenplay is convincing and more than anything else Chow Yun-Fat as Cao Cao in maybe his best role for a long time delivers. Thus, it's particularly sad that "The Assassins" is unnecessarily copying from other movies especially towards the end and therefore proves to have little genuineness.

The Assassins - Film Screenshot 11

Most of the time we are led through the story of the film by Lingju. It's astonishing that Liu Yifei ("A Chinese Ghost Story [2011]", "The Four") actually made some big steps forward to becoming a serious actress during the last few years. She skillfully shoulders the subtle love story of the movie, which is marked by great tragedy since Mu Shun has been castrated. At the same time Lingju learns to respect Cao Cao as he isn't just the tyrant he is oftentimes painted as. Her relationship with the ruler is always pending and particularly because of that interesting to watch. However, that's also the reason why the ending is implausible and too simple in respect to the drawings of the characters that has been done before. One of those cases where an opportunity hasn't been used.

The Assassins - Film Screenshot 12

Furthermore, the portrayal of the emperor, who is depicted as a singing and incompetent blockhead, is questionable. That the country is about to fall apart because of him could have been brought to the screen in a more credible fashion than this slapstick-like drawing of a jester. Well done on the other hand is the subplot between Cao Cao and his son since it offers quite some tension and is highly dramatic. "The Assassins" is full of intrigues, some of them aren't to be grasped at first and thus are slightly frustrating, but as things progress the puzzle pieces fall into place and add up to a more or less coherent whole, depending on how well you were able to remember the numerous names. Yet, it's striking how sudden some acts of betrayal are taking place, almost as if some scene have been cut out of the movie which could have served as a bridge.

With its running time of 107 minutes "The Assassins" is rather short for a period movie and especially when it comes to films full of intrigues involving several parties and which are also heavy on story you should take some more time to elaborate the characters and the drama. Then there are also some other facts you might find yourself irritated by, like a certain assassination attempt on Cao Cao, which we are actually waiting for all the time, that is carried out in a completely crackbrained manner despite thousands of better opportunities at hand. Actually, this doesn't just include this one attempt. However, the biggest problem is that the movie copies too much of similar works from China, but not just there - you will also see some unnecessary action scenes that are standing out with slow motion and almost something like a comic look which will remind you of "300".

The Assassins - Film Screenshot 13

Nevertheless, deserving a lot of praise is Chow Yun-Fat ("Confucius", "Let the Bullets Fly"), who gives the ruler several small nuances which contribute a lot to bringing more quality into the movie. After all Cao Cao isn't simply depicted as a tyrant but as someone who reflects about this actions in his later years and who has become sick of killing in order to ensure a unified country. The picture of the ruler is drawn in a very sophisticated manner, he is still sticking at nothing, but his people stand behind him since he is taking care of their well-being. To portray such an ambivalent character isn't an easy task, but Chow manages to give his best performance of the last few years. The costumes, sets and the soundtrack by Shigeru Umebayashi are also respectable and so it's mainly the several missteps and the missing originality that deny "The Assassins" a better rating.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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