I’m an idiot, so it took me more than a decade to get around to watching REIGN OF ASSASSINS (2010), even though it’s directed by John Woo. Well, like that – it’s actually directed by Su Chao-pin (SILK ), but Woo was with him all the time to guide him, so he got a co-instructor credit. He says he gave advice but never imposed his style. And I certainly would not confuse it with his film.
However, it’s a pretty entertaining wuxia movie, and it stars Michelle Yeoh, so I’m glad I finally got myself together.
The story is about various murderers who fight for the mummified corpse of “the powerful monk Bodhi”, because according to the prologue narrator: “They say that whoever possesses the remains of Bodhi will rule the martial arts world.” Through some non-major illustrations and introductions of freezer-frame / dot-dot characters, we learn that members of “The Dark Stone, a secret guild of the world’s most deadly assassins,” killed Minister Zhang Haiduan and stole the remains, but “in the midst of chaos an assassin, Shi Yu (apparently called “Drizzle” in some translations), discovers Grandmaster Bodhi’s remains and disappears into the night … “All the other assassins try to kill her to get a reward.
Even before she got the dead monk, Shi Yu (Kelly Lin, ZU WARRIORS) was not one to fuck with. We are told that “Shi Yu’s 41-stroke Water-Shedding Sword maneuver is incredibly fast. It floods the victim with a barrage of slashes, making them look as if they have been cut by drizzle.” I love that shit! Her primary weapon is a wobbly, flexible sword that bends and claps around as she swings it. She can hit you with it and the magazine will wrap around you. So her threat is precision, not raw power.
But everyone is after her now, she had better increase her skills so she trains with a man named Wisdom (Li Zonghan, THE LOST BLADESMAN). The problem is that after 3 months he tells her that he is leaving to become a monk. During their last sparring session, she accidentally stabs him and he says, “If you want to put your sword away from me, I’ll be happy to be the last person you kill.” And – hell – she agrees! She decides to put it up, change her identity, be sweet, not kill people, avoid drama.
That was in the days before plastic surgery, of course, but that’s okay. She goes to a doctor (Chin Shih-chieh, THE GUILLOTINES, THE GRANDMASTER), who changes her face by giving her medicine and placing poisonous insects in her nasal cavity, which will eat part of her cheekbones, and then opens her face to to remove tufts and sew it back together with gold thread. And it’s worth it because she’s going to be Michelle Yeoh!
“Some years later,” she calls herself Zeng Jing, and she rents a house in a village where she catches the attention of a courier named Jiang Ah-Sheng (Jung Woo-sung, THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE WEIRD).
Meanwhile, a young woman named Turquoise Ye (Barbie Hsu, MOTORWAY) is found guilty of murdering her fiancé and his parents on her wedding night (to get out of an arranged marriage). Before she can be executed, a Dark Stone member called The Magician (Leon Dai, THE FINAL MASTER) poisons her water with turtle powder to make her appear to have committed suicide, and then digs up her body. “From today I am your father and the dark stone is your mother,” he says. “I want to teach you kung fu and sword games. You’re already dead once. You can either join us or die again.”
Another life she’s forced into. However, she seems more into this one. She seems to specialize in cold killing old perverted guys. However, she often seduces them. She’s been through a lot. I feel for her.
Back in the village, Jing and Ah-sheng get married. I have to mention since I am a big fan of WING CHUN and also of tofu and love to mention the great tofu scene in WING CHUNG that Yeoh gets made an amazing tofu pyramid in this one. There is not a fight scene based on it, but still you have to admire it.
One day she is cooking and he is a little annoying and distracting her so she sends him to pick up rice to get him out of her hair. Before he goes, he keeps trying and fails to hit a fly, so as soon as he walks, she throws a grinder all the way across the house into the wall and chops the fly in two. Yup. Still have it.
One day they are at the bank when some of the assassins show up and think that half of the body is in a safe deposit box there. They start shitting, so Jing throws caution to the wind and fights them all. At home later, she tries to explain herself to Ah-sheng, but he stops her and says, “Even though you were a big bandit before, you’re still my wife now.”
But the fight transcends her to the dark stone. Their master, the Wheel King (Wang Xueqi, BODYGUARDS AND ASSASSINS, IRON MAN THREE) questions a guy who was blinded in the bank, and causes him to recreate some of his moves, confirming to him that it was Shi Yu. (You love a movie where a fighting style acts as a fingerprint.)
The Dark Stone locates Jing and threatens her by leaving three black stones in her home. Oh damn. She uses a special candle to get her husband to sleep and then jumps up and pulls his sword out of the rafters. Someone JOHN WICK “Yeah, I think I’m back!” shit.
There’s some debate as to whether this lady who looks like Michelle Yeoh really is their girl, but the fact is “She can change her face, but she can not change her aura.” Turquoise is given the task of following her husband around, and ends up disgusted that a dreaded woman from martial arts would marry such a boring guy. “The only interesting thing he did was buy a rubble this morning,” she says. (I love that kind of shit where you know it’s coming up later, but you have to wait and anticipate it.) She tries to get to him by sneaking into his home and getting naked in front of him, but his backlash is that run. outside shouts “Come all and see! There is a naked woman in my house! A crazy naked woman!”
She wraps a blanket around herself and jumps up on the roof – the wuxia version of the walk of shame.
Various alliances are proposed and match-ups. A great martial arts concept is that when Wheel King taught Shin Yi the maneuver for the water-shedding sword, he deliberately taught her “four faults” so he could still defeat her. A bit like how ROGUE ONE reveals that they have deliberately built that bug into the Death Star.
Jing fights until she is unconscious, and then Ah-sheng has her own JOHN WICK moment, but the Dark Stone bastards are so unimpressed by him that they do not even realize it when it happens. He pulls a sword out from under the bricks, and they laugh a little at it and do not prevent him from grinding it on the aforementioned stone. It turns out that SPOILER he really is Zheng Renfeng, son of the minister whom Jing thought she killed when he attacked her for the remains. He went to the same doctor, had the abdominal surgery and forged to fall in love with her as a long revenge plot. It’s some effective melodrama because she really loves him, but can not deny that she tried to kill him. Hovsa.
Another plot twist is that the wheel king is a eunuch, and the reason he is so keen on the magic remnants is that he thinks he can use it to reconstruct his balls. Good luck with that, honestly. At least many of the little details from the whole movie – the turtle powder that you fake your death with, one thing I did not mention about a monk and a bridge, some bricks we saw her put into her house when she moved in – braided fine together to create a satisfying ending to the romance and revenge plans and all.
Woo was apparently on the set for the entire filming and also spent more than a week filming a fight scene with his daughter Angeles (later in MANHUNT). But it’s clear that the film is not John Woo’s vision at all, and it does not have any of the things that I think are unique to his work. But it has many of the qualities I look for in a martial arts fantasy: colorful heroes and villains, opera twists, special moves and styles, unique weapons, drama between teachers and students, and of course, good matches (action coordinator: Stephen Tung Wai, HERO, SAVIOR GENERAL YANG, BATTLE AT CHANGJIN LAKE).
Of course, it’s also remarkable as a late-season Michelle Yeoh martial arts film. She had mostly made Hollywood movies like MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA, SUNSHINE, BABYLON AD and THE MUMMY: TOMB OF A DRAGON EMPEROR for a while (except for small appearances in FEARLESS [director’s cut only] and TRUE LEGEND). And since then, the only martial arts movie she’s starred in is CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN TIGER: SWORD OF DESTINY (and, if you count it, ALL EVERYWHERE ALL P ONCE). But producer Terence Chang developed the film specifically to bring Yeoh back into action.
One warning: at least on the DVD I watched, Yeoh was baptized with someone else’s voice. I was wondering if they kept Kelly Lin’s voice after she changed her face, for the sake of accuracy, but in hindsight, it may be because the film is in Mandarin. Although Yeoh spoke Mandarin in CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON, she had to learn her lines phonetically. The cast includes actors from Taiwan, Korea, Hong Kong and China, so I would bet others are dubbed as well, but she’s the only one I would notice. At least I got used to it.
I think the title is a pun – the assassins rule, I think, and her name is (sometimes) Drizzle, and her sword style cuts people off like a drizzle. Also according to Wikipedia “The Chinese title of the film is Jianyu Jianghu, which translates as” sword and rain, rivers and lakes. “The term jianghu refers to an imaginary world that is a parallel martial arts universe.” So it sounds like that title is a better pun and far more poetic.
So at least, yes, I do recommend JOHN WOO’S MICHELLE YEOH IS SWORDS AND REG, RIVERS AND LAKES.
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