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New Release Review - SWORD OF THE ASSASSIN (DVD)

In ancient Vietnam, a young man seeks revenge upon those responsible for his parents' deaths.



Review by Benjamin Poole (@filmclubchs)

Directed by: Victor Vu

Starring: Huynh Dong, Midu, Khuong Ngoc, Minh Thuan, Kim Hien



For devotees of wuxia, Sword of the Assassin has it all, the film’s elegantly violent sequences competing with the best of the Chinese canon.



Set in a halcyon Vietnamese past of wooden villages, cascading waterfalls and mystical qi, the gorgeous Sword of the Assassin does nothing especially new with the period swordplay genre it so beautifully essays. However, to paraphrase the great Bruce Lee, instead of attempting spurious novelty, this is a film that has practiced one kick 10,000 times, perfecting the simplicities and calcitrating a dynamic delivery that will delight fans of this canon.
Victor Vu (one of Vietnamese cinema’s most prolific film makers) directs the stoic Huynh Dong as Nguyen Vu, whom we meet as an infant washed up on the shores of a Shaolin-esque mentor’s island temple. Nguyen, his parents killed by a brutal regime, trains in martial arts upon the island for the next 12 years, hoping to one day bring justice to his family’s killers. He’s up against it though, as Queen Thai Hau (a deliciously cold Van Trang) is a right monster, who, alongside her callous general Tran Tong Quan (evil Khuong Ngoc), holds the country in thrall of her terrible command. No wonder then that sweet feeted but hot headed female warrior Midu (Hoa Xuan) is also out for the queen’s blood. Before long (and after a couple of clumsy meet cutes), Nguyen and Midu team up to take on the evil empire, and, well, you can probably guess the rest.
For devotees of wuxia, Sword of the Assassin has it all: blades that twirl and twist like kaleidoscopes, extended training montages set against dramatic natural backdrops, and themes of familial honour balancing avaricious betrayals.  As ever with this type of genre film, however, the pleasure of Sword of the Assassin is not necessarily found in the repetition of various tropes and features, but in their exciting execution. And there are some excellent executions here, with the film’s elegantly violent sequences competing with the best of the Chinese canon. Veteran choreographer Johnny Tri Nguyen uses wires and wide open space to fully show off the visceral physicality of his performers, and the film balances its melodrama with powerful action. Most fight sequences make innovative use of bodies of water- with warriors flying from beneath the surface of lakes, or, in an especially striking scene, the sea carrying a witch, tied to a stake, her lips sown shut, out to her watery death - emphasising the pure cinema of the martial arts film. No other medium but the movies suits the astonishing motion of kung fu; for non-devotees the wealth of slow motion sequences depicting warriors wheeling swords or staffs before domineering mountains or surging rivers may pall, but, in the same way that some people like ballet, I could never tire of such stuff, especially when it's filmed, as Vu does, to emphasise the kinetic poetry of the genre.
Dong is a charming lead, and the chemistry he shares with Xuan makes us root for these plucky underdogs. Nguyen’s naivety – the lad has spent his entire life on an island with an old man, for the love of Thủy Tinh - even goes some way towards nullifying the genre’s unfortunate tendency to play female characters for laughs. After rescuing an almost overwhelmed Midu from battle, Nguyen has to suck arrow poison from her inner thigh, to mutual consternation; what a first date! Having said that, I did find the film’s conclusions regarding the lesser of two tyrannies a bit dodgy. Nonetheless, Sword of the Assassin is a fairy tale, and a dazzling, thrilling one at that. A happy ever after, however problematic, is as indispensable as ethereal black pyjamad ninjas scaling temples, arrows in the eye, forceful hadokens and the many other genre pleasures of Sword of the Assassin.
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