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Not content to be left out of the 'Three Kingdoms' after falling out from what became the phenomenal success of 'Red Cliff' Chow Yun-Fat returns to the era to play Cao Cao. Often cast too simplistically in most adaptations as the power-hungry villain whom noble strategists Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang as well as nobler warriors Lu Bei and Guan Yu plot to overthrow, co-screenwriter/ director Zhao Lin Shan's 'The Assassins' thankfully does not resort to the same narrative conventions.
Instead, Zhao paints a much more intricate portrait of the astute warlord in telling a very specific story of his planned assassination by various factions on a night when the four elemental stars align. That phenomenon signals, according to an ancient prophecy, the dawn of a new dynasty, and Cao Cao's enemies have seized upon that sign to coordinate an attack on him within the imposing structure of his known as the 'Bronze Sparrow Tower. The titular tower of the movie's Chinese name, that lofty structure is despised by his enemies as a symbol of his ego as well as his thirst for power.
And to the reigning Emperor Xian (Alec Su) it is also a frustrating reminder of how his minister Cao Cao's authority has grown, relegating his monarchy even more ineffectual as the latter grows increasingly popular amongst the people. Xian will be one of those who take advantage of that purported opportune time to hatch a plot to kill Cao Cao, even though Cao Cao snatches the element of surprise from him by inviting him to a hunting game on that very day.
A popular Chinese saying goes something like this – 'a wary heart is critical' and Cao Cao's wariness is all the more heightened following an earlier assassination plot by the empress (Annie Yi) and her father, a powerful Han official named Fu Wan (Ni Dahong) – of which his very son, Cao Pi (Terry Chiu) was even complicit to. Yet perhaps the most eminent danger to Cao Cao's life is Lingju (Liu Yifei) whom Cao Cao takes in as his lover. Not only were her parents slain by Cao Cao when she was young, the fair beauty was also subsequently trained under imprisonment with but one mission to kill Cao Cao.
Besides bringing out the softer aspects of Cao Cao during their private interactions together, Lingju also serves as the narrator of the movie, adding the element of a tragic love story in the midst of the palace intrigue. Her only wish is to run away with Mu Shun (Tamaki Hiroshi) a fellow assassin like her who has infiltrated Cao Cao's army – though you can pretty much guess how their fates will end up. Instead of distracting from the main plot, their romance lends a surprisingly human touch, illustrating with poignancy the price of vengeance on something as pure and beautiful as love itself.
Zhao exhibits the same flair throughout the film, and even though a plethora of supporting characters are at play, their motivations for plotting against Cao Cao never left ambiguous. Particularly well played out is the very first elaborate assassination depicted in the film – of which Fu Wan is mastermind – both in how Cao Cao confronts the perpetrators in front of Emperor Xian as well as how he subsequently deals with the betrayal by his very own flesh and blood, Cao Pi. Bear with the slow pacing at the start as Zhao develops the intertwining plot threads, and you'll appreciate the genius in Zhao's plotting later on. For a first-time filmmaker too, Zhao is a master at tension and suspense, keeping his audience at the edge of their seats as Cao Cao's life hangs in the balance.
The same can be said of Chow Yun Fat's peerless performance. This is without a doubt his best in recent memory, surpassing that in which he played Confucius if we might add, with the veteran clearly relishing one of his meatiest roles of late. Yes, Chow clearly understands the demands and complexities of his character, conveying conviction, intellect and even empathy at different points. This is Cao Cao in his twilight years, who remains firmly a believer in his mission of unification but who has come to recognise the bloodshed and strife it has brought, and is therefore no longer the tyrant he may have been in his younger days. Chow is sheer magnetism in the role, and it is, we dare say, one of the best performances we have seen this year.
Next to Chow, the other actors unfortunately pale in comparison. Worthy of mention however is Liu Yifei, who in the span of a few years, has come to hold her own nicely as an actress worth her weight. The role calls for her to be the symbol of humanity, and she registers a tender and heartfelt performance as her character grows to understand and even respect Cao Cao more over the course of the film. Evocative too are Yee Chung Man's costume and production design, as well as Shigeru Umebayashi's score, combining to accentuate the film's alternately tense and tragic mood.
Indeed, at a time when every new period war epic tries to outdo the last with grander spectacle, Zhao should be applauded for adopting essentially a character-driven approach to the material. There is depth and deftness to the storytelling, especially how he slowly reverses his audience's preconceptions of Cao Cao and casts the oft-misunderstood character in an entirely different light. But of course, the movie wouldn't be what it is were it not for Chow Yun-Fat's commanding performance, which even without grand battle sequences turns this period thriller into an epic in its own right.
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