he died early in the Third Century, Cao Cao continues to be a potent figure in
Chinese culture. To bolster his
legitimacy, Mao invited open comparisons between himself and the legendary
general. In 2009, Cao Cao’s tomb was supposedly
discovered, but many archaeologists have questioned its authenticity. Viewers get a glimpse inside Cao Cao’s
tomb-in-progress as part of Linshan Zhao’s late Romance of the Three Kingdoms epic, The Assassins (trailer here), which releases today on DVD and Blu-Ray
from Well Go USA.
didn’t unify a large swath of China while protecting arguably the worst (and
last) emperor of the Eastern Han Dynasty without making enemies. Cao Cao has plenty, some of whom are
abducting orphans, training them to become assassins. Their only target will be the Chancellor
himself. Young lovers Ling Ju and Mu
Shun will have the best opportunity to complete the mission. She will serve as a consort in Cao Cao’s
Black Sparrow Tower, while he will be placed as a eunuch in the Imperial
court. Unfortunately, the shadowy cabal
is willing to do what it takes to protect Mu Shun’s cover.
Ju loves a eunuch, but she also begins to admire the crafty old general she is
supposed to kill. The common people’s
esteem for Cao Cao and the stability he preserves is eye-opening for her. She can also appreciate his knack for
thwarting assassination attempts. He
seems to make all the right enemies, including the ungrateful slime-bucket of
an emperor. Yet, killing him might be
the only way to free herself and Mu Shun.
Adding urgency, a prophecy about the four stars coming into alignment
would seem to foretell the fall of the Han Dynasty and Cao Cao’s rise as their
Cao Cao is the best role Chow Yun-fat has had in years. At his best, he nicely conveys the regrets
and isolation of the warlord at the end of his career, while projecting an
appropriate sense of badness, like a revisionist Eastwood wuxia figure. He can be a bit stiff during the quiet
scenes, though. In contrast, Zhang
Fengyi is far more enjoyably villainous as Cao Cao in John Woo’s Red Cliff (which Chow reportedly bailed
out of at the last minute). Yet, Jiang
Wen’s world weary but still Machiavellian Cao Cao in Alan Mak & Felix Chong’s
The Lost Bladesman remains the
richest screen interpretation in recent years.
there are a few adequately staged large scale action sequences, Assassins really is more of a romantic
tragedy. Zhao exercises surprising
tear-jerking restraint, but Ling Ju and Mu Shun’s stolen moments together have
real bite nonetheless. (Crystal) Liu Yifei plays
the former with a porcelain-like fragility, while Hiroshi Tamaki broods
effectively as the emasculated Mu Shun.
to accomplished contributors like art director Yohei Taneda and cinematographer
Xiaoding Zhao (whose credits include Kill
Bill and House of Flying Daggers, respectively),
Assassins is quite an impressive
looking period production. Although
action fans might get frustrated with Assassins’
stately moodiness, there is something about Ling Ju and Mu Shun’s
star-crossed love that resonates deeply.
Recommended for fans of historical melodrama more than swordplay, The Assassin is now available on home
viewing formats from Well Go USA.
Labels: Cao Cao, Chow Yun-fat, DVD, Liu Yifei