Assassin'S Blade. The (2008) [Blu-Ray]
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Zhu Yanzhi (Charlene Choi) is the daughter of a wealthy wine merchant (Ti Lung), sent into the mountains disguised as a man to learn martial arts with an elite clan.Once she begins her intense training, Zhu finds herself at odds with her trainer and superior, Liang (Chun Wu). But soon, a stronger connection is revealed between the two, and as their attraction grows, so does the danger of Liang discovering Zhu s real identity, Could it be that they're destined to be together?As the two lovers dare voice their feelings, Zhu learns that her parents are in danger and she must return home immediately, in the company of a childhood friend who also happens to be an aspiring court politician. Could there be more to his intentions than she knows? From the action director of HERO and HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS, this comedy romance crackles with action, danger, hidden identities and unrequited love.
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(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.
There's a big deal made about dressing Yanzhi up as a man, but apparently all that means is wrapping a bunch of gauze around Yanzhi's breasts so she doesn't poke through her clothes when it gets cold. There is literally no attempt made to talk in a deep voice or wear fake facial hair. Yanzhi's just acts super feminine all the time and nobody ever notices. She's actually quite annoying in the first half of the film as she mostly just screams at the top of her lungs, is totally helpless in every situation, is terrible at martial arts, is mostly just taking up space, and overacts to the worst degree. She takes the clan by storm with her sewing skills and admiration for butterflies.
The humor seems really forced. Most of it occurs when Yanzhi and Shan are first getting to know each other and mostly involves them being conceited douchebags to one another. Teacher Herbal Head (Harlem Yu), a medicine expert at Soul Ease Clan, relies on nothing but diarrhea jokes whenever he shows up on-screen. Tony Ching Sui-Tung did a pretty fantastic job with the action sequences in "Hero," but they feel over-choreographed here. Fight scenes are often described as a dance where you have to learn the proper rhythm and movements. These sequences in "The Assassin's Blade" feel like dances. There is far too much cartwheeling, running, jumping, and spinning in the air to feel threatening or intimidating in the slightest.
The one enchanting element "The Assassin's Blade" can boast about is its drastic change in lighting and colors, especially in the final act. Butterfly Valley looks like something that was ripped straight out of "Oz the Great and Powerful" while the final act has an extreme use of reds and whites and this extreme transition between the two that's visually overwhelming. Too bad it's bogged down by the second and third acts being nearly identical or at least ending somewhat similarly. People don't know when to lie down and quit in this. You've been stabbed twice and you have two arrows sticking out of your back. It's probably time to call it a day.
"The Assassin's Blade" plays out like a Chinese remake of Romeo and Juliet, but tries to cram in so much melodrama, overacting, action sequences that play out like ballet, terrible attempts at humor, and horrid computer generated butterflies that it's extremely difficult to get through. It took nearly twice as long to get through its 103-minute duration. You'll be begging for some of those turtle pills just so you can fake death and get out of finishing this overblown attempt and extravagant entertainment.