Love, love, love. What life is worth living if you don't have love? All you need is love, for love is a many splendored thing ... or so the songs go. What's particularly heart-wrenching involving such affairs of the heart is how to come to grips when it seems like civilizations are destined to keep star-crossed lovers apart. Now that's the stuff of real drama - classic drama, anyway - the likes of which William `Billy' Shakespeare plumbed in his day; and that's near and dear where THE ASSASSIN'S BLADE tries in vain to go. While it doesn't quite get there in perfect shape, I'm happy to say that it gets pretty close, despite some uneven pacing and even a weirdly unfunny but comical first half that feels more like TOOTSIE OF ARABIA than it does CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN YENTL.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters. If you're the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I'd encourage you to skip down to the last two paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you're accepting of a few modest hints at `things to come,' then read on ...)
Zhu Yanzhi (played by the stunning Charlene Choi) is a young maiden in a world ruled by men. In order to be accepted into her land's male-only martial arts academy, she's going to have to do something about her gender. Before you can say `Mulan,' she's wrapped her lady parts in a sheet and convinced her teachers that she's a young boy, but that certain something about her keeps forcing her mentor Liang (Chun Wu) to daydream inappropriate romantic thoughts. Eventually, Liang learns the truth, only it happens much too late: Yanzhi has been called back home by her parents who've pledged her to marry Ma (Ge Hu), an old family friend who's not above killing a city official in order to get closer to the woman he wants to be betrothed to. Worlds collide, and the two men are destined to face-off for the love of a woman who once tried to be a man.
THE ASSASSIN'S BLADE opens with the recitation of a poem (of sorts) that sets the dramatic stage for the film, and that's because the script is based on a famous Chinese legend. Arguably, it doesn't feel all that `legendary' as Yanzhi - a lovely, young beauty who clearly in no logical way, shape, or form - could ever be mistaken for a boy. Still, the script plunders forward, and she's plunged into fight training despite the presence of ladylike cheekbones and some perky, not-insignificant breasts. Much of it is played as broad farce - the musical cues certainly would imply that's how director Jingle Ma intended it - and, as farce is less effective when not entirely convincing, the first half stretches the bounds of credible to their limit. Though everyone treats her like a boy, Yanzhi looks like a girl; sounds like a girl; has no Adam's apple like a girl; acts like a girl; giggles like a girl; and methinks you get the picture.
In fact, once the script finally dispenses with the obvious charade with a set of circumstances that bring Liang in on the big secret, BLADE becomes a better film ... or, at least, a more believable premise.
It's the second half that's particularly strong. All hint of comedy is wrung from the prose as the stakes are raised. The fate of Yanzhi's parents are in doubt as Ma pledges to murder them if she rejects the marriage. Liang wears his heart on his sleeve and travels to her village in order to profess his love for her. The lovers meet and hatch a plan, but fate is the cruelest mistress as Ma and his royal minions rise up to keep them apart. In this half, it's clear that these characters are tinkering with the stuff of legends as well as the world of dreams: both Yanzhi and Liang have lived lives plagued by dreams that promised they'd find their one true love - one another - in a land of color and butterflies. The imagery is powerful, and its intensity by the stark shadows prevalent in the accompanying fight sequences.
My advice? Tolerate the first half. Think of it as the fairy tale told to a child. Anticipate the second half. It's vastly superior, much more interesting, and brimming with the stuff of dreams - a fairy tale for adults.
THE ASSASSIN'S BLADE is produced by BIG Pictures, and, for the record, it had a whole slew of distributors involved internationally (check out IMDB.com if you're interested). DVD distribution (stateside) is being handled by Well Go USA. For those needing it spelled out perfectly, this is a Cantonese spoken language film with English sub-titles available (no dubbing). As for the technical specifications, quite a bit of BLADE looks and sounds very impressive; I experienced a few moments of what appears to be an odd sound mix (action sounds off the scale when compared to the accompanying dialogue), but the cinematography is particularly winning throughout the latter (better) half of the film. As is often the case, the disc comes with no special features save for the theatrical trailer as well as a handful of previews for other titles available from Well Go USA.
RECOMMENDED. While a bit uneven at times, so much of THE ASSASSIN'S BLADE really relies on the chemistry established by the leads. For the most part, it works. Thankfully, the comedy of the first half wears off about the time it starts to wear thin, and the majesty of some impressive visuals - along with some winning fight work that overused slow-mo a bit too much - comes to life ... just about the time the audience fears all is lost. To paraphrase, "there's magic in them there butterflies." Juliet finds her Romeo, and if it weren't for those nasty Capulets getting all up in their faces maybe - just maybe - it'll all work out in the end. Or not.
In the interests of fairness, I'm pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Well Go USA provided me with an advance DVD copy of THE ASSASSIN'S BLADE by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.