When looking at a film like the costume drama 'The Assassins,' you realize that, at a certain point, the amount of time that's passed between a significant event or age is all that stands in the way of the fiction half of "historical fiction" firmly taking the reins and steering any account of recorded history headlong into the more nebulous, but no less enchanting realm of straight-up fiction. It seems the further back an account goes, the more accepting it becomes at lending its narrative to aspects of the fantastic. For instance, take how the account of the battle of Thermopylae was outrageously translated into both the graphic novel, and subsequent Zack Snyder recreation, '300,' while more recent events depicted in both 'Zero Dark Thirty' and 'SEAL Team Six: The Raid on Osama Bin Laden' tend to take a more sobering, clinical look at real world events.
There's little doubt that had the 24-hour cable news channels existed back in 480 B.C., we'd all be looking at Gerard Butler with a tad more scrutiny, but therein lies the greatest advantage to the most successful films of this ilk: They manage to make the fantastical feel as though it were an actual aspect of a particular culture, or even humanity's most enduring and legendary moments. It's at once a larger-than-life account of what was a hard-fought and tumultuous time, and a bitter reminder that a fair share of the stories mankind feels worth recording are filled with angry feuding, brutal carnage and copious amounts of killing.
And that notion: The tiring aspect of endless bloodshed, fighting and infighting that often lead to the rise, and, after a period of time, fall of various empires and regimes is at the heart of 'The Assassins.' Starring international superstar Chow Yun-Fat as the well-known Cao Cao, powerful chancellor during the waning years of the Han Dynasty, the film sets out to explore not only the rich history of China – especially during the period of the Three Kingdoms – but also to look at the cyclic, self-defeating nature of violence as it pertains to establishing and maintaining the rule of a nation, as well as the manner in which a person's life is deemed worth of esteem.
These are hefty concepts that clearly play a large role in the core narrative, but are unfortunately examined only superficially in the film. The majority of the conflict, as it affects the main characters and relates to both the larger story, and actual history, is primarily relegated to the thematically uncomplicated dialogue between the King of Wei (Cao Cao), his son and future emperor, Cao Pi (Qiu Xin Zhi), and the effete Emperor Xian (Alec Su). Of course this could simply be that the lyrical elegance of the message and the splendor of the dialogue was somehow lost in translation, but that does little to combat the sense that, no matter what language this script is served in, it will come out feeling anemic and overloaded with characters who serve the plot by the thinnest of contrivances and motivations.
And by that, I'm referring to the titular assassins, who are comprised of the beautiful and meditative Ling Ju (Liu Yi Fei), and her partner, Mu Shun (Tamaki Hiroshi) – who, as told by Ling Ju's voiceover, and through lengthy flashback, would be her lover, were it not for the fact he is a eunuch. But herein is the greatest conflict in terms of the story of 'The Assassins': The plot thread of Ling Ju and Mu Shun never feels as though it fully integrates itself into the larger and more interesting component of Cao's conflict with the emperor and his cronies. You would think that having been granted title status, that the actual assassins would be the driving force behind the storyline – but instead, the two only manage to bifurcate the film's plot, and muddy up the proceedings of what is already a mildly tedious costume drama.
From the moment we are introduced to the would-be assassins – as they are relocated to a prison camp and forced to train as killers – it feels as if there are two films at work here. Even when Ling Ju and Mu Shun are finally put on assignment as servants at Cao Cao's impressive estate, the characters never manage to generate interest beyond a will-they-or-won't-they vibe in regard to their assignment.
Not surprisingly, the majority of the film's intrigue is brought forth in the performance of Chow Yun-Fat – but even then, there is little his presence can do to make the proceedings feel like less of a drag. The script's missteps and limitations appear to stem from the factual nature of the storyline, as though the "history" of it all would be enough to overcome the shortcomings that exist in terms of character development and pacing. Furthermore there is a reluctance to delve into anything deeper than a handful of shallow propositions about the meaning of freedom, and the legacy of achievement born through violence and bloodshed. By the end, we feel Cao Cao's burden, but there's no real meaning behind it other than what we're told should be there, or what we will learn (or already know) about the approaching end of the Han Dynasty.
To top it off, many of the martial arts sequences – which feature a 'Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon'-style light-footed technique – feel almost superfluous in a film so motivated by its historical connections. As an additional sour note, some will undoubtedly be turned off by the Benny Hill-like fast-forward aesthetic of the scenes. The fantasy of it all works well with the incredibly gorgeous costume and set design the film boasts, but it ultimately contradicts the more important aspects of the film's narrative, and undercuts what little effectiveness there already was.
Decent performances aside, 'The Assassins' regrettably comes off as too disjointed and too chaotic to hold together all the contrasting elements that have been brought about under the umbrella of historical fiction. There is plenty for the eye to gaze upon in terms of the film's lavish production, but there's little to remember outside of the eye-candy.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Assassins' comes from Well Go Entertainment, and is packaged in the usual keep case, but with a slipcover featuring the same artwork. As with most features from Well Go, there are several previews for the company's other offerings, which are also advertised by an insert packaged along with the disc.
'The Assassins' has a 1080p AVC/MPEG-4-encoded transfer, which, given some of the stylistic choices made during filming, either looks incredibly sharp or overly tinkered with. The problem stems from the heavy use of filters, which incorporate a cold, metallic look to much of the film that is tastefully done is some aspects, while chillingly lifeless in others.
On the whole, the image here is good; detail is present when it needs to be, but only manages to achieve a spectacular quality during close-ups. In that regard, fine detail exquisitely delivers an image rich with all the lines, wrinkles and unique aspects of the actors' faces. The familiar stoic visage of Chow Yun-Fat is typically the best example of this, as the actor manages to convey the age and weariness of his character quite well. But most importantly, 'The Assassins' is an elegant period drama, filled with elaborate set design and exquisite costumes that are really the hallmark of the disc's transfer. Ornate gold overlays on battle armor, the intricate etchings on the blades of swords and, most of all, the incredible craftsmanship that's been put into the various rooms and decorations of Cao's estate and the surrounding area, all look remarkably crisp when the image is deliberately focused on them.
The trouble comes when the camera pulls away from a single person, and the image becomes about many different characters or sets that much of the fine detail is lost. Facial features, hair, fabric textures and, most tellingly, the intricate flourishes on the armor and costumes tend to blur a bit and loose a significant amount of the crispness that defines them in more intimate views. As a result, many of the climactic battle sequences – while still looking good – lack the kind of ultra-fine detail that would have made this film's imagery as remarkable as the designs it was capturing.Elsewhere, though, the image manages to represent itself fairly well with a consistent contrast level that keeps blacks looking dark and inky, and whites that never bloom or burn too hot. There are some issues with banding in some of the darker portions of the film – which has many sequences take place at night – and that can be distracting at times.
Overall, the image on 'The Assassins' is somewhat uneven. The fine detail can be remarkable, but it primarily only shines in close-ups, rendering wider shots average at best.
With its DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, 'The Assassins' manages to sound quite good, and is highlighted by the elegant flourishes and the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle use of surround effects – considering much of the film's plot is driven by its dialogue.
In that regard, dialogue is presented via the center channel, mostly, but occasionally will seep into the front an rear channels in the more chaotic battle sequences depicted later in the film. Character voices are easily heard and distinguishable, lending those of us who are not multi-lingual the added benefit of determining what character is speaking, and whether or not they are on or off screen. Most importantly, the score, or the aforementioned sound effects never seem to overwhelm the dialogue.
Even though this is a dialogue-heavy historical drama, there are plenty of opportunities for the sound effects to come through, as the titular assassins do occasionally manage to brandish and swing their swords around, looking to see the pointy end driven into the squishier parts of Cao Cao. When this happens, the audio mix shines; clashing swords and other ancient weaponry clang and echo with a harmonic mastery that seems to ring across all channels simultaneously. When the action on screen becomes even more hectic, and the score approaches its crescendo, the audio diligently balances all the elements out, while beefing up surround sound and the LFE.
This is an impressive mix that doesn't miss a chance to highlight the martial arts sequences in clever ways, producing an immersive listening experience that handles subtle and aggressive sound with equal poise.
'The Assassins' has a stellar cast, and will unquestionably garner some attention from fans of marital arts or historical epics. Unfortunately, the film falters on both accounts, delivering a jumbled storyline that relies too much on delivering its ending, and not enough on developing a reason for the audience to become truly engrossed in the tale. Beyond its connection to an era that garners a great deal of interest, there's not much else about the picture that really resonates. Despite the disappointment in the film's execution, there may be enough to recommend it based on the ornate costumes, sets and a curiosity regarding the martial arts aspects. With a decent, but imperfect picture, and better than average sound, this is a disc that isn't going to wow everyone, but might be worth a look for fans of the genre.