“The Assassins” is an enjoyable historical drama inspired by North China warlord Cao Cao and loosely based on individuals featured in the historical novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”. This film is not historical fact, nor should the story be seen as fact. If anything, “The Assassins” should be seen as a film about one man known for dominating in war and reigning in power, starting to eventually learn more about life and the importance of life thanks to his new mistress, unaware that this woman is an assassin. Chow Yun-Fat brings a more human side to Cao Cao who is typically seen as a tyrannic warlord and also a wonderful performance from Crystal Liu Yi Fei. But a love triangle? Surprisingly, for this film, it works.
TITLE: The Assassins (Tong que tai)
FILM RELEASE: 2012
DURATION: 103 Minutes
BLU-RAY DISC INFORMATION: 1080p High Definition, 16:9 Widescreen, Mandarin, English Stereo/5.1 DTS-HD MA, Subtitles: English and Chinese
COMPANY: Well Go USA Entertainment
RATED: Not Rated
Release Date: January 8, 2013
Directed by Linshan Zhao
Written by Bin Wang
Produced by Lou Yi
Cinematography by Xiaoding Zhao
Art Direction by Yohei Taneda
Costume Design by Chung Man Yee
Chow Yun-Fat as Cao Cao
Crystal Liu Yi Fei as Ling Ju/Diaochan
Hiroshi Tamaki as Mu Shun
Alec Su as Emperor Xian of Han
Annie Yi as Empress Fu Shou
Qiu Xinzhi as Cao Pi
Yao Lu as Ji Ben
Ni Dahong as Fu Wan
In the year 198 BC, Cao Cao (CHOW YUN FAT), Prime Minister of the Han Dynasty, ventured to the east and defeated China s greatest warrior Lu Bu, terrifying every ambitious warlord across the country. Several years later, after taking the Han Emperor under his wing, Cao crowns himself King of Wei. He built a magnificent Bronze Sparrow Island to symbolize his power and rumors spread that he would replace the Emperor.
Meanwhile, young lovers Mu Shun (TAMAKI HIROSHI) and Ling Ju (CRYSTAL LIU YI FEI) are taken from a prison camp to a hidden tomb, where they spend five cruel years together, training as assassins for a secret mission. In the year 220 BC astronomical signs predict dramatic change. As a result, Cao s son Cao Pi (QIU XIN ZHI) and Cao s followers urge Cao to become the new Emperor – but unknown and opposing forces plot against him.
Starring international film legend Chow Yun-Fat, and created by the team behind gripping action dramas such as HERO, HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS, CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER and KILL BILL, THE ASSASSINS is a gripping, lush historical epic that mixes tragic romance with taut political drama.
When it comes to Chinese historical dramas, the warlord and chancellor Cao Cao has been featured in various films and video games.
A man who has been portrayed as cruel in order to achieve dominance in China and thus looked at as a tyrant, he is also praised as a military genius. But while historians will forever debate Cao Cao and many loose film adaptations continue to be created on historical figures, in today’s modern age, you tend to watch these films and not take it so much as factual history but as entertainment.
And who best to write the film than Bin Wang (“House of Flying Daggers”, “Hero”) and feature the work of director Linshan Zhao. And for marketability, cast as Cao Cao is actor Chow Yun-Fat (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, “The Killer”, “Hard Boiled”, “Curse of the Golden Flower”), to promote the film overseas, Japanese actor Hiroshi Tamaki (“Nodame Cantabile”, “Last Christmas”, “Waterboys”) was also cast as the character Mu Shun and cast for the female lead of Ling Ju is up-and-coming actress Crystal Liu Yi Fei (“White Vengeance”, “The Forbidden Kingdom”).
“The Assassins” begins with a young Mu Shun and Ling Ju trying to escape capture from an army. These young kids were then brought together with other children (note: unbeknown to these children, they are all orphans of slain warlords or military leaders killed by Cao Cao and his army) and from a young age to adulthood, they were trained to fight and become assassins. All for one goal, to get close to chancellor Cao Cao (portrayed by Chow Yun-Fat) and kill him.
Mu Shun (portrayed by Hiroshi Tamaki) and Ling Ju (portrayed by Crystal Liu Yi Fei) have grown up with each other, both are in love but on the day that these two seemingly are to consummate their love, the plan to kill Cao Cao is enacted and Ling Ju is whisked away as part of the plan to become one of the mistresses for Cao Cao (with her goal to get close and kill him), while Mu Shun is castrated and becomes one of the palace eunuchs.
Cao Cao is very much feared by everyone for defeating major rival warlords and gaining supremacy of Northern China, to the point that he was granted the title of vassal king – King of Wei by Emperor Xian of Han (portrayed by Alec Su).
But others do not like the cruel dominance of Cao Cao including the Emperior Xian who has been used as a puppet by Cao Cao for political affairs, his wife Empress Fu Shou (portrayed by Annie Yi) who is working with her father Fu Wan to stage a coup against Cao Cao. Including Cao Pi (portrayed by Qiu Xinzhi), the son of Cao Cao who is having an affair with the Empress and knows if he can eliminate his father, he will finally get to have the Empress Fu Shou all to himself.
With everyone wanting Cao Cao dead, for some reason, his time spent with Ling Ju is starting to make him think of peace, meanwhile, Mu Shun (who can’t bare to tell Ling Ju that he has been castrated) feels he can no longer be the man that she wants. But both know they have a mission and that is to kill Cao Cao.
But will they be able to accomplish their goal, or is Cao Cao always a step in front of them and is always prepared?
“The Assassins” is presented in 1080p High Definition (2:35:1 aspect ratio) with beautiful cinematography by Xiaoding Zhao (“House of the Flying Daggers”, “Curse of the Golden Flower”, “The Flowers of War”). With that being said, it looks like there was quite a bit of experimentation on colors. For one, the film looks great when it showcases more blues or even the red dress of Lingju. Picture quality also has some softness and the occasional white specks (which was actually surprising considering this film was released in theaters less than four months ago. But while the film is not the most detailed in HD, it does look good most of the time.
AUDIO & SUBTITLES:
“The Assassins” is presented in Mandarin and English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. And from the beginning of the film, the surround channels, including the rear surround channels are much active and become quite immersive as we hear everything from the scurrying ants to the soldiers on horseback. So, you do have your immersive moments during the action sequences. Dialogue is crystal clear and for the most part, I was impressed with the lossless audio for this film. I didn’t listen to the English dub but for those who enjoy their foreign films with English voice acting, it is offered as a selection.
Subtitles are in English.
“The Assassins” come with the following special features:
- Behind the Scenes – (13:45) Featuring interviews with the talents, including behind-the-scenes and outtakes.
- Trailer – (1:40) Theatrical trailer for “The Assassins”.
When it comes to historical dramas, especially on important, historical Chinese individuals, I have watched many films to see how they become more dramatic, more action-driven and possibly so out of left-field that it becomes more of an entertaining popcorn action film.
From film, TV dramas to video games, they are usually not 100% factual, but inspired on actual events or characters.
And when it comes to Cao Cao, from “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” to other depictions of his likeliness, it’s usually not good. Sure, he was a military genius that was able to dominate North China but by doing so, a lot of innocent people and other warlords were killed. And he was also an accomplished poet as well.
And while it is not really know what is fiction and non-fiction about the warlord, what we do know is that these depictions tend to skew towards Cao Cao as more of a powerful antagonist.
With the 2012 film “The Assassins”, Cao Cao is given a different treatment. Writer Bin Wang has written major films such as “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers” and for “The Assassins” instead of showing him as a tyrant, he wanted to show a more human-side of a powerful man that is changed by… love.
Suffice to say, this may not go over well with certain viewers but for those who are entertained by the fact that Chow Yun-Fat is portraying Cao Cao, you can’t help but want to see what writer Bin Wang and director Linshan Zhao has in store.
The good news is that Chow Yun-Fat does a wonderful job of playing Cao Cao. From being a man of power, a man who knows that people fear him but also a fragile man behind-the-scenes who has nightmares and headaches because so many want him dead, including people who may be close to him. He lives on guard most of the time and he is very observant of everyone around him.
But yet, he allows one woman to get close to him. Lingju, not a historical character in the historical novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” but she is an assassin who was trained since she was young for one thing, kill Cao Cao and she will have her freedom.
Featuring another fantastic performance from young, up-and-coming actress Crystal Liu Yi Fei, Lingju is a woman that is conflicted. Having been exposed to freedom, she knows her mission but yet talking to people around her, she tries to understand why Cao Cao kills, why is he the way he is and why do people employed by him, like working for him. She starts to see the positives of what he brings to his own soldiers and mistresses, but most of all, he is kind to her.
But the question is why is he kind to her and why has he opened her up to his world? That is a major part of the story that you’ll have to watch and find out.
I have to admit that I was shocked to see well-known Japanese actor Hiroshi Tamaki cast as Mu Shun (which is a character featured in “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”) but many of these bigger budget films are now more conscience of overseas marketing and doing what they can to make money overseas. With the character o Mu Shun, unlike the historical novel where Mu Shun delivers letters back and forth to Empress Fu Shou and her father Fu Wan, the role of Mu Shun is much different in “The Assassins”.
In this film, Mu Shun grew up with Lijung as kids, both were best friends and eventually fall in love with each other. But because the two were sent on a secret mission to kill Cao Cao, while Lijung wants to escape with Mu Shun and be happy, unbeknown to Lijung is that he was castrated (ensuring that he doesn’t do anything to wreck the plan to kill Cao Cao and preventing him to be sexual with any woman).
Knowing that he can’t give her happiness as a man, he just wants to see Lijung happy and trying to turn down her advances, while she is not so sure why he has become so distant.
Suffice to say, “The Assassins” is a film that becomes more of a romantic drama. A love triangle than a historical epic. To help keep the film so entertaining and audiences not being disappointed that Cao Cao is changing because of love, writer Bin Wang and director Linshan Zhao are able to integrate enough action scenes to make the film quite entertaining instead of it being sweet and sappy.
Chow Yun-Fat carries this film on his shoulders, as he did with another historical drama film “Confucius”, but in dramatic fashion, I suppose the film works on that level. It’s just that anyone expecting more war, more strategy, more battles featuring this military genius may be disappointed by the focus of the romantic elements, especially of how one mistress is able to change Cao Cao.
As for the Blu-ray release, the cinematography by Xiaoding Zhao is beautiful but interesting color choices used for the film. Picture quality has its issue with softness and some scenes with white specks but other than that, the film does look very good on Blu-ray. But the highlight is the film’s immersive soundtrack. Great use of the surround channels, nothing that utilizes LFE but more of use of ambiance and overall sounds, especially during the opening moments of the film. As for special features, there is a “behind-the-scenes” feature and a trailer.
Overall, “The Assassins” is an enjoyable historical drama inspired by North China warlord Cao Cao and loosely based on individuals featured in the historical novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”. This film is not historical fact, nor should the story be seen as fact. If anything, “The Assassins” should be seen as a film about one man known for dominating in war and reigning in power, starting to eventually learn more about life and the importance of life thanks to his new mistress, unaware that this woman is an assassin.
Chow Yun-Fat brings a more human side to Cao Cao who is typically seen as a tyrannic warlord and also a wonderful performance from Crystal Liu Yi Fei. But a love triangle? Surprisingly, for this film, it works.