07 Apr The Assassin: A Near Perfect Wuxia Classic of Romance and Bloodshed
In 1967, the combination of Chang Cheh and Jimmy Wang Yu changed how the game was going to be won for the Shaw Brothers studio. Together they forged a dynamic relationship for the wuxia classic The One-Armed Swordsman that essentially defined how the studio was going to approach their films. Technically, there are films of a similar nature that embrace gimmicks, style, and dramatic punctuation like this one did prior to its release, but this was the first film to generate HK$1 million at the box office and that’s iconic and a detail that really defines how one looks at this film. If you’re a fan of the Shaw Brothers, Chang Cheh, or Jimmy Wang Yu, then this isn’t necessarily fresh news to you. The One-Armed Swordsman is highly considered one of the high marks for the studio and one of the most iconic films of the genre. There have been plenty of articles and reviews dedicated to that film. While this is important, it’s not the focus of what I’m going to discuss today. What you may not know is that in 1967, Chang Cheh and Jimmy Wang Yu made three films for the Shaw Brothers studio. The first was the uneven if not silly and charming Trail of the Broken Blade, then came The One-Armed Swordsman, and just before the year rang out they released The Assassin.
The focus of this piece is to be on that third film from this year, The Assassin. The reason I started off by mentioning The One-Armed Swordsman is that The Assassin could very well be the perfect companion film to it by having similar themes and approaches to its story while being a different film altogether too. In many ways, The Assassin is a film that is criminally overlooked by the films around it (both Trail of the Broken Blade and The One-Armed Swordsman received DVD releases in the US) and even diehard fans rarely talk about this film. If it wasn’t available via Amazon Prime, I’m sure I would have waited to see it for much, much longer. It resides in the shadow of the more iconic film and gets overlooked for it.
It’s a shame. The Assassin is essential wuxia cinema.
There are a variety of reasons for this statement, although I’m sure I’m biased to some extent by my undying love for Chang Cheh as a director, but The Assassin is one of those films that blends action and drama in a strong balance. While many (perhaps all?) Shaw Brothers films are fantastic action flicks, The Assassin works in balance with it to deliver a film that’s also character driven and a remarkably effective love story too. The focus of the film is driven by Jimmy Wang Yu as the titular assassin Nie Zheng, admirably so by the young actor giving as much effort to his torn conscious as he is to his charismatic interactions or his icy glare in the action set pieces, but it’s his chemistry with Lisa Chiao Chiao as the romantic interest Xia Ying that wins this movie. The heroic staple of the Shaw Brothers formula here is expected, particularly in this wuxia heavy 60s era of the studio, but this romantic plot is truly the heart and soul of why The Assassin works. Not only does an audience care about Nie Zheng and his torn need to do the heroic thing for the greater good, but the film establishes such a strong connection for his own ‘commoner’ life with his partner that it makes it resonate longer with the audience in how torn he is in his choices. Even when the film starts to toy with the narrative time line a bit, jumping forward years at a time in some occasionally stuttering ways, it works as the emotions of the characters still ring true. Even much of the secondary cast adheres to this stylistic approach and focus. Cheng Lui, as Nie Zheng’s peer and friend, adds admirably to the cast even if he shows up for only the first half of the film. This happens again and again to create a layered storytelling technique that builds a hearty foundation for the rest. This is a tale unfolding that the audience becomes inherently devoted to as it goes and the characters and emotion are grounded in shockingly effective ways. The Assassin is just not about a hero preparing for the one-time he must use his abilities for the good of all, it’s a film about him as a person and those around him that must also deal with this choice too. It’s a very humane and effective way to go about telling the usual wuxia story and it has fantastic dramatic effects.
Of course, this emotional and character driven story is brimming with fantastic action too. It wouldn’t be a Chang Cheh film without it. The Assassin doesn’t use the action as a way to keep the audience entertained in-between dialogue, plot progression, and character growth pieces though, it’s used to punctuate the emotions that the film is built on. Chang Cheh plays the film decently straightforward in this manner, grounding a lot of it in the realism of the story and only going for more strikingly artistic moments in the opening credits with the visuals and for one iconic scene in the final act. There isn’t a substantial amount of swordplay in the film, but it works to progress the film forward and having Liu Chia-Liang as one of the action directors helps to keep things in the narrative flowing. By the time it reaches the finale, Shaw Brothers fans will be on the edge of their seat to see if our assassin lives or dies as the film builds up the suspense to this one idea in impeccable ways. So even as the blood begins to spill, nothing is set in stone and each action set piece has larger implications in the story as a whole. It’s the perfect way to do action.
The Assassin is, as far as I’m concerned, a true wuxia classic that just so happens to be overshadowed by one other film that came out a smidge earlier in the year. It’s a film powered by an emotional rollercoaster of character work and performances, a slick eye for blending the action and narrative by Chang Cheh, and a few gasp inducing moments of truly inspired film making in the final act to lift up the dramatic tension. When it comes to the often-overlooked diamonds in the Shaw Brothers catalog, fans need to make sure that The Assassin does not become a forgotten cornerstone of the studio. It truly is a near perfect classic of romance and bloodshed. Who could ask for more?
Written by Matt L. Reifschneider Blood Brothers Film Reviews Founder/Writer/Lead Editor Blood Brothers. Unapologetically cult. @TheMovieMatt