Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Fantasia ’12: Reign of Assassins

It is the stuff dreams are made.  However, in Ming-era China, it is not a little black bird, but an ancient monk’s corpse—two halves of it to be precise.  While her Dark Stone assassin guild will kill or die for the fateful body, one former femme fatale would prefer to go straight in Su Chao-pin’s Reign of Assassins, “co-directed” with the John Woo (trailer here), which screens at this year’s Fantasia Festival (after packing the house at last year’s NYAFF).

According to legend (and Reign’s cool animated prologue), when the Bodhidharma came to China, he perfected the practice of martial arts.  So profound was his kung fu enlightenment, it became ingrained in his very body.  That is why his divided cadaver was plundered from the tomb.  Wheel King, the shadowy leader of the Dark Stone, is determined to find and unite the monk’s remains.  Yes, he wants that martial arts mojo, but he has other secret motivations as well.  However, Drizzle, one of his top lieutenants, has gone rogue at an inopportune time.

Changing her features, Drizzle becomes the beautiful but mild mannered Zeng Jing, a street vendor with a huge stash of silver under her floor.  Naturally, she turns the heads of all the men in town, but only the foot courier Jiang Ah-sheng is worth a second look.  It turns out he is worth marrying.  Unfortunately, when bandits strike close to home looking for the Bodhi body, her façade starts to slip.  Suddenly, Zeng former colleagues come knocking.

Reign has a massive karmic twist that might be guessable, but still packs an archetypal punch.  It also has Kelly Lin as the before Drizzle, Michelle Yeoh as the after Zeng (talk about twice lucky), and Barbie Hsu as the hot psycho Dark Stone recruit, Turquoise Leaf.  Indeed, Reign is blessed with a great action heroine in Yeoh, who is still impressive in the fight scenes, as well as several memorably colorful villains, most definitely including Hsu.  Once again, Wang Xueqi does his thing, making Wheel King one heavy older cat.  Yet, Reign also has some nice quiet moments shared by Yeoh’s Zeng and Jung Woo-sung as the apparently genial Jiang.

While Reign does not exactly break any new action choreography ground, there are some highly cinematic sequences featuring Drizzle/Zeng’s “water-shedding-sword” technique.  It might not display very many Woo-isms, but it has a well crafted period look.  It is also fun and oddly comforting seeing Yeoh bring it once again.

After blowing the lid off the house last year at NYAFF, Reign finally makes it up to Montreal.  It will be worth the wait for wuxia and Yeoh fans (though presumably there is a lot of crossover between the two).  Recommended for those who appreciate elegant, character-driven martial arts cinema, Reign of Assassins screens tomorrow (7/25) and next Friday (8/3) during the 2012 Fantasia Festival, north of the border.