Monday, June 6, 2011

Sha ren zhe Tang Zhan / The Assassin (Hong Kong, 1994)

This film came my way via a pal runs a place here in Berlin called Silver Disc. Whenever his pile of "unsellable" trash DVDs gets too high, he lets me raid it in exchange for a couple of beers or euros. Normally, the films in the pile are as unknown to me as the nether regions of an elephant, but in my never-ending search for the great unknown film I always find something that looks like it might be promising. His pile of "unsellable" DVDs is always much smaller after a visit from me.
In all truth, however, I have yet to find one film in that pile that actually delivers the promise it (or at least the DVD case) initially seems to promise. And this Hong Kong film, Sha ren zhe Tang Zhan / The Assassin, Siu-hung "Billy" Chung's 1994 Cat III period piece slicer and dicer, is no exception. Which isn't to say that the film doesn't have its good points or that it is completely unwatchable; it's just that the film isn't particularly memorable or interesting. (Rather unlike Siu-hung Chung's extremely idiosyncratic and memorable horror comedy Gui qing ni di hu / Last Ghost Standing (1999 / trailer), a gobshit film that rather deserves a bit more than the zero attention it has gotten to date.)
The Assassin is of slight note for having garnered a Cat III rating only for its violence, as there is little to no overt sexuality in it. That said, although the version being reviewed here, at 84 minutes, is 4 minutes longer than the supposed length of the uncut film (as in accordance to imdb), and although the film also has more than enough blood and gore, online sources say it has been trimmed of about 3 minutes of spurting ketchup and flying appendages (as is typical of German-language versions, even those labeled "adults only"). Worse, perhaps, is that the transfer doesn't seem to have been made from the film itself but rather from a video. Thus, though the film remains completely intelligible and its innately simple story easy to follow – something that is not always a given in Hong Kong flicks of any genre and/or budget – any possible cinematic eye candy suffers greatly.
That the colors and composition of The Assassin might originally have looked a lot better than they do in the Laser Paradise Eastern Edition release immediately comes to mind during the winter massacre in which all the killers wear white, the later village massacre in which the child monk is killed, the burning village scene in which the film's nominal hero ends up decapitating his former mentor, the burning graveyard scenes, and the final confrontation in the endless and foggy chambers of the Big Evil Kaiser; in all these scenes (and many other), the washed out colors and bleeding pixels of the Laser Paradise Eastern Edition do obvious and severe damage to any and all cinematographically artistic intentions. (Oddly enough, though the decapitation mentioned above is badly cut in the German version, a later one seems to have been left fully intact. The vagaries of censorship are hard to understand.)
For a Hong Kong period piece of the 1990s, The Assassin is totally devoid of any and all humor – unless, perhaps, the bad-hair wigs worn by the various men was meant as a joke. (There is also a sword-through-the-body executed in such horrendous CGI that loud laughter is a spontaneous though probably unintentional result.) The intended total lack of humor of the film does well in reflecting the nature of the film's nominal hero, Tong Po Ka (Fengyi Zhang, seen most recently in John Woo's big budget monumental epic duet Red Cliff [2008 / trailer] and Red Cliff II [2009]): seldom has there been an actor of less expression, of less emotion – but then, for most of the film he is also playing a man dead inside. Regrettably, he is so dead inside that often it comes across as if he is more bored with the film he's in than he is trying to reflect a character. For that, the evil Kaiser chews the scenery with admirable aplomb.
The Assassin opens with Po Ka and his love Yiu (Rosamund Kwan of Once Upon A Time in China [1991 / trailer]) trying to escape so that they may marry. They don't make it, and Po Ka soon finds himself tied up in prison with his eyes sewn shut being whipped. Surviving a round in a gladiatorial ring, he is trained as an assassin and, renamed Tong Chong, becomes a loyal member of the coterie of killers of a power hungry ruler. As one of the best killers he is even given an apprentice of his own to train, Wong Kau (Siu Chung Mok), who is torn between his loyalty for his master and his desire to replace him on the corporate ladder. During a daytime assassination of a child monk, Tong runs into his former love, now married with child, and suddenly his scruples and humanity return. An attempt to leave his life as a killer ends badly, so he returns to the fold, unaware that the ruler has ordered Wong Kau to eliminate him...
For all the violence and gore, the film is oddly boring at times – like, between any all set pieces. It also suffers severely by having such a wet-rag, uncharismatic hero. The low budget shows a bit at the seams, but in general director Siu-hung Chung does well with the little money he has to create bare but convincing sets and some well-done crowd scenes. The fight choreography ranges from passable to excellent, though the latter is definitely the less common occurrence. Even in its cut form, the blood and gore in The Assassin is notable – and one unintended result of all the gushing red is that it quickly becomes apparent that in this type of period pieces, blood and gore are not a satisfying replacement for an intriguing story, sympathetic characters, consistently well choreographed fight scenes and decent pacing.
Were The Assassin not as bloody as it is, it would be a marginal genre offering from Hong Kong. With blood, and with its low budget kept in mind, it is still little more than an acceptable film to pass the time with if nothing better is around, but if given the choice there are many a much more memorable film out there, both older and more recent.
Anyone for a rewatch of The Bride with White Hair (1993 / trailer)?

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