Hong Kong made 1993 a banner year for wuxia pictures. In fact, the genre became so saturated that audiences grew bored with it; with the impending sovereignty of the Mainland looming in the near future, protracted and stylized fantasy began to take a back seat to often nihilistic films that earned the “CAT III” rating for graphic depictions of criminal activity and violence, particularly sexual violence at that. Examining the lowest depths of human depravity garnered quite the reputation for film makers and actors willing to participate in such films.
The Assassin, one of the many wuxia pictures of 1993, actually features all of the above including the restrictive rating; it stands as the roughest, rawest film of its type besides Tsui Hark’s The Blade. Apparently based on a story (novel?) by Wen Rui An, it tells the story of Tong Po Ka (Zhang Feng-Yi), the eponymous assassin. Arrested for dubious reasons while running away with his beloved, Yao (radiantly beautiful Rosamund Kwan), Po Ka endures an abusive prison sentence. In the film’s most shocking scene, his jailors sew his eyelids shut and proceed to beat him into unconsciousness. When his captors grant his sight back, Po Ka finds himself in an arena with other prisoners, and receives a chance at life, so long as he survives a fight to the death with his cellmates and agrees to work as an assassin for the government that wrongfully imprisoned him.
Po Ka patiently waits for the other prisoners to start fighting before involving himself in the brawl, and when his last opponent nearly kills him, a previous winner of the same contest saves him, deciding that Po Ka’s outlook makes him most suitable for the job of assassin. Brought before the Eunuch of the Western Palace, Po Ka receives a new name, Tong Jang, and begins his career as a professional murderer.
At this point, the film shifts to the perspective of Wang Kou (Max Mok in an ill-fitting fright wig), a would-be master swordsman hired for an assassination lead by Tong Jang. An earnest and genuinely nice young man – the film shows this in the convenient shorthand, with Wang sharing his food with a stray puppy – Wang finds himself fascinated with Tong Jang’s methods. Tong shows him the open grave where he inundates himself with the sight and smell of rotten death, and shares the philosophy of the assassin, that one kills in order to continue living. It’s practically Randian in its selfish amorality.
But while Wang sets himself on the road of Tong Jang, Tong finds himself slowly moving back towards becoming Po Ka. On a mission to kill dissenting Buddhist monks as they pass through a city, Tong sees his lost love, Yau, with her young son. Recognizing Po Ka as he murders the nonresistant, defenseless monks, she pleads with him to stop, and he finally hesitates when he finds out that the reincarnated abbot they call their leader is only a young boy. Wang Kou does not, and recognizing Tong Jang’s hesitation as an irrevocable change in his life’s direction, dedicates himself to walking the road that Tong abandons.
The film shifts focus back to Tong Jang, now living in the village of flower growers and farmers where Yao lives with her new husband and child. The villagers treat him with nothing less than neighborly love, and Yao’s child addresses him as uncle, offering to share his favorite toy in an attempt to raise the emotionally broken Tong’s spirits. Tong believes that he has shed too much blood to ever return to peaceful life, but Yao and her neighbors treat him as their own, and as he accepts the role, he begins to see himself fitting it, although unworthily. When the Eunuch dispatches the same assassin that saved his life years before to burn down the village and kill him, he realizes that he must return to his life of violence, though not in service to a corrupt and cruel government.
As mentioned, The Assassin is the first in a short wave of wuxia movies which presents a scarier, grimmer sort of violence than some of the more fantastical genre films from the 90’s. The scene where Po Ka’s eyelids are sewn shut is genuinely unnerving, and when the nearly godlike Eunuch fights, director Billy Chung shoots it as a scene from a slasher movie; spatial relationships between characters and setting blur in a furious montage of chiaroscuro lighting, point-of-view shooting, and editing that refuses to acknowledge continuity of any sort. Much of the action, choreographed by veterans Stephen Tung and Benz Kong, is generic, if competent. The wire work is sometimes at odds with the tone of the rest of the movie. But it is bloody to the point grotesquery.
It’s not only the action scenes; The Assassin always keeps one foot in the visual conventions of its genre to its own peril. Exterior scenes shot by Zhao Fei, a frequent collaborator of Tian Zhuang Zhuang and Jiang Wen, look not unlike the work He Ping from around this period. The arid landscapes and intensely blue skies fit the grimy story and its accompanying violence, but scenes shot on soundstages that retain the typical Hong Kong style of flood lighting under heavy blue filters look too staged, too contrived, and too generic for their own good. The result is a visually schizophrenic movie, especially when combined with action set-pieces that might go from frenzied and brutal to fantastical within the same scene.
It doesn’t help that the film focuses its plot entirely on its characters. While I appreciate the attempt at a character-driven wuxia movie, the characters reference the machinations of the corrupt government and the Eunuch in particular with the evidence always in the periphery. There’s a super-plot involving the Eunuch of the Western Palace attempting to create a cult of personality around himself, starving peasants to feed his own carnal desires, and doing so with the help of government officials to whom he supposedly owes his fealty, but it is only spoken of by the characters, and only in passing at that; the film barely shows us any of what is really happening. It feels like half the script is missing.
That said, The Assassin is still an evocative and interesting movie. The production design is generally pretty good, and every scene with the Eunuch is absolute gold. Although I cannot identify the actor who plays him, the man deserves the highest of praise for acting underneath a wig so surreal that it puts even Max Mok’s hilariously ugly curly mop to shame. The scenes in which he cavorts with women, helped by an improbably large metal dildo, is equally bizarre and disgusting as the previously mentioned scene in which he rips apart would be assassins in horror movie villain fashion.
The Assassin has a nervous quality to it, again, much like other 90’s movies that earned CAT III ratings for reasons other than soft porn, and at times it borders on the same sense of nihilism, although it actually ends on an upbeat note. The nervous quality is an inevitability when looking at the grotesque and acknowledging it as such. The acting is also uniformly good, a tremendous boon to such an underwritten movie. Director Billy Chung has spent the 2000’s making disposable filler like Kung Fu Mahjong and The Lady Iron Chef. I would not in the least mind him attempting another bleak, character driven wuxia movie in a similar vein as this one.