Tuesday, May 07, 2013

The Assassin’s Blade: A Wuxia Tale for Verona

When they became sister cities, Verona and Ningbo (in east Zhejiang province), exchanged statues of Romeo & Juliet and Zhu Yanzhi & Liang Zhongshan, popularly known as the Butterfly Lovers.  While the comparison between the two star-crossed couples was always apt, Jingle Ma cranks up the Shakespearean elements in The Assassin’s Blade (trailer here), his romantic adaptation of Butterfly Lovers legend, which releases today on DVD and Blu-ray from Well Go USA.

Zhu has always led a sheltered life, but she longs to see the world.  Suddenly, she will have a bit of an opportunity.  She is to study with the Soul Ease martial arts clan in the retreat high in the mountains.  The order does not accept women, so she will have to pass as a man.  Only her father’s old friend, Soul Ease’s healing practitioner, Herbal Head, knows her secret.  Although they start off on the wrong foot, she soon forms a close bond with “Big Brother” Liang, the master’s top student.

It is all particularly confusing for him, given his inability to see through her clever disguise.  Yet, viewers fully realize they are predestined for each other, having appeared in each other dreams for years (though always seen from behind and slightly out of focus).  Just when they start to get somewhere, her childhood friend “Brother” Ma Wencai appears to take Zhu home where news of their arranged marriage awaits.  That’s just not going to work, especially considering Ma’s rather ruthless approach to love and war.

The first half of Blade channels Shakespeare’s comedies, particularly Twelfth Night’s cross-dressing romance.  The pendulum swings to tragedy during the second half, directly invoking Romeo & Juliet.  There is even a mysterious little McGuffin causing no end of complications.  There was a time when Hollywood had a golden touch with romantic weepers, but these days Hong Kong and Chinese wuxia epics hold the overwhelming competitive advantage.  Blade is a perfect example.  Despite suspecting how it all must end, the film keeps viewers hoping otherwise and will likely be thoroughly satisfied by the poetic closing.  It also delivers some pretty impressive swordplay, emphasizing the human weaknesses of the combatants, instead of making them nearly invulnerable supermen.

It is darn hard to believe anyone could confuse Charlene Choi with a man.  Regardless, as Zhu she is both vivacious and sincere.  Wu Chun broods like mad opposite her and brings sufficient credibility to his action duties.  Unfortunately, Hu Ge’s Brother Ma’s in-betweenness makes him too merciless to identify with, but too pathetic to cheer for his downfall.

While director Ma (perhaps best known as the cinematographer on some of Jackie Chan’s best known films) emphasizes the tale’s high literary tragedy, he keeps the pacing brisk and the action muscular.  It all has a classy look in the tradition of Zhang Yimou epics that should appeal to fans of historical romance as much as martial arts fanatics.  Recommended to general audiences as a thin edge of the wuxia wedge, The Assassin’s Blade (a.k.a. The Butterfly Lovers) is now available for home viewing from Well Go USA.