The Assassins (Cert 15)

1 Disc (Distributor: Universal Pictures UK) Running time: 103 minutes approx.

In the closing years of the Han Dynasty, warlord Cao Cao (Chow Yun Fat) has been given the title Lord of Wei by the Emperor Xian (Alec Su), and in return for the protection provided by Cao Cao’s army. Meanwhile, two orphans, lovers Mu Shun (Hiroshi Tamaki) and Ling Ju (Liu Yifei) who were captured and trained as killers by Cao Cao’s rivals, have been despatched to infiltrate Cao Cao’s palace as a eunuch and concubine respectively, awaiting the signal to assassinate Cao Cao.

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By now, one would have thought that Chinese filmmakers would have exhausted all possible adaptations of the legendary Chinese novel Luo Guanzhong’s 14th century masterwork Romance of the Three Kingdoms, but first time director Zhao Linshan clearly felt otherwise with this latest lavish period drama to be born from this monumental tome. Linshan deviates the trends of previous adaptations, including John Woo’s five hour epic Red Cliff, for concentrating on the battle elements of the stories by presenting a more character lead dramatising of the final years of one the tale’s most celebrated figures, Cao Cao.

That is not say this is action free as you can’t tell a story from the Three Kingdoms without depicting some mass bloodshed and Linshan doesn’t scrimp on that front either. There are two major clashes, one at the beginning and one at the end and both while brief are pretty spectacular. The first employs a unique and inventive way to use arrows and rope to create a net for the soldiers to travel across – and over – the enemy courtyard. The second features a lot of slicing and dicing, aided by some CGI blood and other unnecessary effects, as the plotting, duplicity and subterfuge comes to a violent conclusion.

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Cao Cao also has other problems closer to home. His own son Cao Pi (Qiu Xinzhi) is an ambitious and power hungry Young man who thinks his father is getting to complacent and soft in his old age. Cao Pi also happens to be having an affair with Xian’s wife Empress Fu Shou (Annie Yi) who masterminded the first attempt on Cao Cao’s life. With so many conspiring forces surrounding him Linshan has created a more sympathetic side to Cao Cao, or at least one that doesn’t judge him as a bloodthirsty warlord who made many children orphans in his pursuit for dominance and victory in the name of his kingdom. With such an ineffective and paranoid Emperor Xian as ruler one wonders why he isn’t the target of assassination attempts but it seems having such an easily manipulated figurehead ruler is of some benefit in getting your own way. However Cao Cao is a lot smarter than people give him credit for.

The other main plotline involving our titular assassins Ling Ju and Mu Shun isn’t as developed as the main thread despite it playing a crucial part in deciding Cao Cao’s fate but it is given just enough time to establish itself and become a fixture in the viewer’s mind in how it will effect the outcome. With so many layers of deception thrown at us, Lishan is smart enough to keep the reveals coming in steady doses so one is left thinking, “what else could be coming next?”

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Seeing Chow Yun Fat in another historical period drama role, akin to his turn in Curse Of The Golden Flower, might seem like deja vu but the commanding performance he delivers here, bringing not just gravitas to the proceedings but a worldly sense of humanity to Cao Cao eliminates such thoughts.

Alec Su’s portrayal of Xian is often comical but his character is tinged with pathos and he emotes the childish paranoid side of the Emperor beautifully. Despite an promising early showing at the start of the film Hiroshi Tamakis infrequent appearances as Mu Shun make his character pretty forgettable. Liu Yifei has the requisite porcelain looks for the chaste Ling Ju, but thankfully is giving more to do that look pretty, as her character finds her emotions becoming increasingly conflicted.

It would appear there is still some water left in the Three Kingdoms well for some more films if The Assassins is anything to go by. A superbly structured, well written and wonderfully acted historical drama that shows a fresh perspective can make all the difference, and Zhao Lishan is a name to look out for in the future.



Mandarin Original Production Audio

English, French & German Language

English, French, Dutch & German Subtitles

English SDH Subtitles


Blu-ray Only:

Deleted Scenes

Chow Yun Fat Featurette

Director Zhao Lin Shaun Featurette

Behind The Scenes with the Cast

Music Video


Rating – *** ½

Man In Black