Wednesday, March 11, 2015


My cable guide told me I was going to see a 2013 Vietnamese film, and while that wouldn't be impossible on the El Rey network, it was still unlikely. It was, more predictably, Another Shaw Bros. Production, one of several "Lady" pictures the inclusive action channel scheduled recently to mark International Women's Day. The original Chinese title translates to something like "Palace of Revelations," but it does have a lady assassin, and several other female fighters besides, as well as a female producer, Mona Fong. The real auteur is writer-director Lu Chin-Ku, whose most important collaborators were editors Chiang Hsing-Lung and Liu Shao-Kwang. They give this tale of dynastic intrigue an increasingly frantic quality as the drama accelerates toward an over-the-top climax. This later Shaw release apparently never got a wide U.S. release, so El Rey showed it with English subtitles. I always appreciate this despite my nostalgia for the corny accents of dubbed films because you see (and hear) that the Shaw performers could actually act. Since Lady Assassin takes it dramatic plot quite seriously -- it really is an ambitiously made picture -- I was glad that some awkward voice didn't take me out of the story. The subject is the rivalry of two princes, sons of a dying Emperor of the Ching (aka Manchu) dynasty. "Fourth Prince" (Tony Liu) would seem to have a built-in advantage over "Fourteenth Prince" but the younger man is the more virtuous and gets promoted to general, making him the favorite for the succession. In fact, the decision has already been made, but Fourth Prince thinks he can change the Emperor's words if not his mind. This is where the lady assassin, Lui Si Niang (Leanne Liu) comes in. Her skills as a thief and acrobat are truly useful to Fourth Prince. After a bit of Raiders-inspired business to determine where the imperial succession decree has been located, she and her assistants steal it out of a high ceiling panel. Fourth Prince is then able to edit the document so that it proclaims him the next emperor. The decree in doctored form is read aloud while the emperor is on his deathbed, but he's too feeble, and Fourth Prince is too close, to correct the error. Fourteenth Prince makes the mistake, not knowing any better, of acknowledging Fourth as the new rightful Emperor Yongcheng, thus undercutting his ability to raise a resistance to him. Meanwhile, Fourth Prince had won the support of Lui Si Niang and other heroes of the martial world with a promise to end the Manchu policy of discrimination against indigenous Han Chinese. His intentions are good at first, but his Manchu advisers find it all too easy to change his mind with warnings against a Han uprising. In general Yongcheng doesn't like to feel dependent on anyone. When a warrior he promoted to General makes a big, humiliating show of his exclusive control over his army, the Emperor acts quickly to break him. His estrangement from Lui Si Niang and the other fighters eventually puts all their lives in jeopardy.

Lady Assassin works just as well as a historical drama as a wuxia film. The ruthlessness of the intrigue and its violent results might appeal to Game of Thrones fans, and the production values are often quite impressive. The art direction by Chen Ching-Shen and the cinematography by Ma Ching-Chiang often enhance the mood with expressive framing and lighting. I liked the acting as far as I can appreciate it with no knowledge of Chinese, the standouts being the two princes. Tony Liu is fine as the weaselly Fourth Prince, while Max Mok pulls off the more thankless task of conveying the tragic weakness and ultimate cluelessness of Fourteenth Prince. The martial arts might not appeal to purists. Lu Chin-Ku depends heavily on editing to assemble fight scenes but what he may sacrifice in verisimilitude he makes up for in pace and dramatic momentum. Some of the effects he tries don't work, especially the rapid-fire repetition of fighters' entrances. But when Lu and the editors really get going the fight scenes have the dynamic pictorial energy of the better superhero comics. They sometimes edit so rapidly that watching is like reading a comic from panel to panel. The team goes into overdrive for the final battle, when Lui Si Niang leads an attempt to assassinate the Emperor. As the editing gets faster than ever, the violence gets still more extreme. In the end, Lady Assassin is the sort of kung fu film I remember from my childhood that ends abruptly with an exhilarating kill. In fact, this film has two such moments within seconds of each other, with one villain cut in half after an exhausting battle and another cut in half lengthwise at the very last moment by the heroine's virtual orgasm of righteous murder. I admit that I was in suspense partly because I was afraid the film was going to run past the length of my DVR recording, but I suspect that audiences not operating under my time constraint would share my bloodthirsty exhilaration at the stunning finish. Lady Assassin wasn't the film I expected, but I suspect I'm better off for that.

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