Tuesday, January 08, 2013

The Assassins: Cao Cao’s Lucky Stars

Though he died early in the Third Century, Cao Cao continues to be a potent figure in Chinese culture.  To bolster his legitimacy, Mao invited open comparisons between himself and the legendary general.  In 2009, Cao Cao’s tomb was supposedly discovered, but many archaeologists have questioned its authenticity.  Viewers get a glimpse inside Cao Cao’s tomb-in-progress as part of Linshan Zhao’s late Romance of the Three Kingdoms epic, The Assassins (trailer here), which releases today on DVD and Blu-Ray from Well Go USA.

You didn’t unify a large swath of China while protecting arguably the worst (and last) emperor of the Eastern Han Dynasty without making enemies.  Cao Cao has plenty, some of whom are abducting orphans, training them to become assassins.  Their only target will be the Chancellor himself.  Young lovers Ling Ju and Mu Shun will have the best opportunity to complete the mission.  She will serve as a consort in Cao Cao’s Black Sparrow Tower, while he will be placed as a eunuch in the Imperial court.  Unfortunately, the shadowy cabal is willing to do what it takes to protect Mu Shun’s cover.

Ling Ju loves a eunuch, but she also begins to admire the crafty old general she is supposed to kill.  The common people’s esteem for Cao Cao and the stability he preserves is eye-opening for her.  She can also appreciate his knack for thwarting assassination attempts.  He seems to make all the right enemies, including the ungrateful slime-bucket of an emperor.  Yet, killing him might be the only way to free herself and Mu Shun.  Adding urgency, a prophecy about the four stars coming into alignment would seem to foretell the fall of the Han Dynasty and Cao Cao’s rise as their successor.

Frankly, Cao Cao is the best role Chow Yun-fat has had in years.  At his best, he nicely conveys the regrets and isolation of the warlord at the end of his career, while projecting an appropriate sense of badness, like a revisionist Eastwood wuxia figure.  He can be a bit stiff during the quiet scenes, though.  In contrast, Zhang Fengyi is far more enjoyably villainous as Cao Cao in John Woo’s Red Cliff (which Chow reportedly bailed out of at the last minute).  Yet, Jiang Wen’s world weary but still Machiavellian Cao Cao in Alan Mak & Felix Chong’s The Lost Bladesman remains the richest screen interpretation in recent years.

While there are a few adequately staged large scale action sequences, Assassins really is more of a romantic tragedy.  Zhao exercises surprising tear-jerking restraint, but Ling Ju and Mu Shun’s stolen moments together have real bite nonetheless.  (Crystal) Liu Yifei plays the former with a porcelain-like fragility, while Hiroshi Tamaki broods effectively as the emasculated Mu Shun.

Thanks to accomplished contributors like art director Yohei Taneda and cinematographer Xiaoding Zhao (whose credits include Kill Bill and House of Flying Daggers, respectively), Assassins is quite an impressive looking period production.  Although action fans might get frustrated with Assassins’ stately moodiness, there is something about Ling Ju and Mu Shun’s star-crossed love that resonates deeply.  Recommended for fans of historical melodrama more than swordplay, The Assassin is now available on home viewing formats from Well Go USA.