Director Chang Cheh on top form with a real gem of a film, but if you’re expecting the usual bloodthirsty, simplistic, macho approach, think again!…
Like One-Armed Swordsman, released earlier that same year, The Assassin is an interesting transitional movie for director Chang Cheh in the creation of his masculine ‘yanggang’ template – films with rebellious, young male leads with nothing to lose save an honourable death. Even though our heroes’ fate is sealed from the opening credits, The Assassin is quite different from what you’d expect from Chang. It’s a far more considered film, with the emphasis on the drama surrounding our hero than action.
Jimmy Wang Yu (Temple Of The Red Lotus, Golden Swallow, Master Of The Flying Guillotine) plays Nie Zheng, a common farmer in the Six Kingdoms or ‘Warring States’ period of China, over 2700 years ago, who dreams of transcending his status to make a significant mark on the world. Despite his martial arts prowess from his training by Master Wu, it’s something one of his class can only dream about. That’s until a fellow student abuses his fathers position in the local authority to class Wu’s school and his students criminals, and all because his desires Nie’s childhood girlfriend, Xia Yang (Chiao Chiao, The Trail Of The Broken Sword, One-Armed Swordsman, The Twelve Gold Medallions).
This rival uses government troops to all but wipe out Wu’s school. Nie soon revenges his master and fellow pupils, at the cost of having to flee the region with his sister and elderly mother. A year later, the only other surviving student befriends official Yen Chung-Tzu (Tien Feng, The Trail Of The Broken Blade, The Silver Fox), teaching his son Wu’s swordsmanship, only to sacrifice his life saving his employer from an assassination attempt by another corrupt official, the high-ranking Premier Han Kui (Huang Tsung-shun, King Cat, The Magnificent Swordsman).
Also losing his son in the attempt, Yen goes in search of Nie, planning to employ him to assassinate Premier Han in revenge. The two become brothers, but Nie’s first priority is his family. He promises to undertake the mission once his mother has died and his sister had married, but what of the girl he left behind, and the simple life they could have had?
Reuniting Wang Yu and Chiao as a couple, director Chang offers an answer to One-Armed Swordsman’s conclusion, where Yu’s character leaves behind the honourable life of a swordsman to live as a farmer. The implication is that such a man of principle and abilities can not escape his destiny, and it’s a motif Chang would show often (he even returned to his One-Armed Swordsman character a year later).
Based on the allegedly true and well known tale of Nie Zheng – as featured in the book The Lives of the Assassin-Retainers by the historian Sima Qian – his fate is never in any question, but instead Chang concentrates on the consequences of our young heroes’ actions, not just to himself but his family. The influence of Akira Kurosawa shines through in one of Chang’s most thoughtful and even beautiful takes on the wuxia pian theme. Despite being as studio bound as many of the Shaw Brothers, the cinematography is far more considered than often seen in Cheh’s movies with scenes lovingly composed around rituals and procedures of status.
Most importantly, it’s the pace of the film that is like few others in Chang’s repertoire – it truly takes its time. There are little more than a few action scenes building to a exceptional end where our hero Nie Zheng faces off hundreds of the Premier’s guards in his mission.
It’s the sort of character development that you’d usually dream about in a Chang Cheh movie, and strangely ironic – not to mention sad – that finding his footing on later ‘yanggang’ movies actually meant greatly simplifying them.
There is much similarity with the story of the Assassin Jing Ke, set right after the ‘Warring States’ period, that inspired The Emperor And The Assassin and Hero. In both tales the action of the lead character helped bring an end to corruption and unite China into one strong country, though the outcome is very different. (It goes a long way to understand why certain characteristics are so popular in Chinese culture, and why the assassin so so revered.)
This often overlooked gem is Chang Cheh at his very best, and could easily bring a whole new audience to his films.
The Assassin is available to download or rent on iTunes, Google Play and YouTube. See the full list of Shaw Brothers movies on iTunes here. Shaw Brothers films are also now available on Netflix.
Home media details
Distributor:IVL Films (Hong Kong)
Celestial Pictures have brought us another beautiful transfer, with fantastic picture quality and ‘better than new’ sound. Some of the music sounds like it’s been re-recorded, but music cues from You Only Live Twice, included on the original soundtrack, remain.
Some extras, including biographies, stills and trailers. This also includes the Zhang Che documentary that has been included on most of Shaw Brothers Che reissues. (Having said that, it’s worth watching for teh host of stars who give their thoughts on him, including John Woo, Tsui Hark and Andy Lau!)