I’m an idiot so it took me more than a decade to get around to watching REIGN OF ASSASSINS (2010), even though it’s directed by John Woo. Well, sort of – it’s actually directed by Su Chao-pin (SILK ), but Woo was with him the whole time to mentor him, so he got a co-director credit. He says he gave advice, but never imposed his style. And I definitely wouldn’t confuse it for his movies.
It is a pretty enjoyable wuxia movie though, and it stars Michelle Yeoh, so I’m glad I finally got my shit together.
The story concerns various killers fighting over the mummified corpse of “the powerful monk Bodhi” because, according to the narrator of the prologue, “They say that whoever possesses the Bodhi remains will rule the martial arts world.” Through some not-great illustrations and freeze frame/bullet time character introductions we learn that members of “The Dark Stone, a secret guild of the world’s deadliest assassins” killed Minister Zhang Haiduan and stole the remains, but “amidst the chaos an assassin, Shi Yu (apparently called “Drizzle” in some translations), discovers Grandmaster Bodhi’s remains and disappears into the night…” All the other assassins try to kill her to get a reward.
Even before she had the dead monk, Shi Yu (Kelly Lin, ZU WARRIORS) was not someone you should fuck with. We’re told that “Shi Yu’s 41-stroke Water-Shedding Sword maneuver is incredibly fast. It showers the victim with a barrage of slashes so they look like they have been cut by drizzling rain.” I love that shit! Her primary weapon is a wobbly, flexible sword that bends and flaps around when she swings it. She can thwap you with it and the blade will wrap around you. So her threat is precision, not brute power.
But everybody’s after her now, she better ramp up her skills, so she trains with a man named Wisdom (Li Zonghan, THE LOST BLADESMAN). Trouble is, after 3 months he tells her he’s leaving to become a monk. During their last sparring session she accidentally stabs him and he says, “If you will lay down your sword I will be happy to be the last person you kill.” And – holy shit – she agrees! She decides to hang it up, change her identity, be nice, not kill people, avoid drama.
Of course this was in the days before plastic surgery, but that’s okay. She goes to a doctor (Chin Shih-chieh, THE GUILLOTINES, THE GRANDMASTER) who changes her face by giving her medicine and placing poisonous insects in her nasal cavity that will eat part of her cheek bones, then slices open her face to remove the bugs and sews it back together with gold thread. And it’s worth it because she becomes Michelle Yeoh!
“Some years later” she’s calling herself Zeng Jing and she rents a house in a village, where she catches the eye of a courier name Jiang Ah-Sheng (Jung Woo-sung, THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE WEIRD).
Meanwhile, a young woman named Turquoise Ye (Barbie Hsu, MOTORWAY) is found guilty of murdering her fiance and his parents on her wedding night (to get out of an arranged marriage). Before she can be executed a Dark Stone member called The Magician (Leon Dai, THE FINAL MASTER) poisons her water with tortoise powder to make her appear to have committed suicide, and then digs up her body. “From this day forward, I am your father and the Dark Stone is your mother,” he says. “I will teach you kung fu and swordplay. You’ve already died once. You can either join us or die again.”
Another life she’s being forced into. She seems more into this one, though. She seems to specialize in coldly killing old perverted dudes. She’s often seducing them too, though. She’s been through alot. I empathize with her.
Back in the village, Jing and Ah-sheng get married. I need to mention, since I’m a big fan of WING CHUN and also of tofu and love to mention the big tofu scene in WING CHUNG, that Yeoh gets to make an amazing tofu pyramid in this one. There’s not a fight scene based around it but still, you gotta admire it.
One day she’s cooking and he’s kind of annoying and distracting her, so she sends him to pick up rice to get him out of her hair. Before he leaves he keeps trying and failing to swat a fly, so as soon as he leaves she hurls a cleaver all the way across the house into the wall and chops the fly in half. Yep. Still got it.
One day they’re at the bank when some of the assassins show up thinking half of the corpse is in a deposit box there. They start fucking shit up so Jing throws caution to the wind and fights them all. At home later she tries to explain herself to Ah-sheng but he stops her and says, “Even if you were a big bandit before, you’re still my wife now.”
But the fight outs her to the Dark Stone. Their master the Wheel King (Wang Xueqi, BODYGUARDS AND ASSASSINS, IRON MAN THREE) questions a guy who was blinded at the bank and makes him re-enact some of his moves, which verifies for him that it was Shi Yu. (Man do I love a movie where a fighting style acts as a fingerprint.)
The Dark Stone locate Jing and threaten her by leaving three black stones in her home. Oh fuck. She uses a special candle to make her husband sleep and then leaps up and pulls her sword out of the rafters. Some JOHN WICK “Yeah, I’m thinking I’m back!” shit.
There is some debate about whether this lady who looks like Michelle Yeoh is really their girl, but the fact is “She can change her face, but she can’t change her aura.” Turquoise is assigned to follow her husband around, and ends up disgusted that a feared woman of martial arts would marry such a boring guy. ”The only interesting thing he did was to buy a whetting stone this morning,” she says. (I love shit like that where you know it’s gonna come up later but you get to wait and anticipate it.) She tries to get to him by sneaking into his home and getting naked in front of him, but his counter move is to run outside yelling “Everyone come look! There’s a naked woman in my house! A crazy naked woman!”
She wraps a blanket around herself and leaps onto the roof – the wuxia version of the walk of shame.
Various alliances are proposed and match-ups are had. A great martial arts concept is that when Wheel King taught Shin Yi the Water-Shedding Sword maneuver he intentionally taught her “four mistakes” so that he could still defeat her. Sort of like how ROGUE ONE reveals they intentionally built that flaw into the Death Star.
Jing fights until she’s unconscious and then Ah-sheng has his own JOHN WICK moment, but those Dark Stone fuckers are so unimpressed by him they don’t even realize it when it’s happening. He pulls a sword out from under the bricks and they kind of laugh at it and don’t stop him from sharpening it on the aforementioned stone. It turns out that SPOILER he’s really Zheng Renfeng, the son of the minister who Jing thought she killed when he attacked her for the remains. He went to the same doctor, got that bug surgery and faked falling in love with her as a long con revenge plot. It’s some effective melodrama because she really loves him but can’t deny she tried to kill him. Whoops.
Another plot twist is that the Wheel King is a Eunuch and the reason he’s so keen on those magical remains is that he thinks he can us it to reconstitute his balls. Good luck with that, honestly. Anyway many of the little details from throughout the movie – the tortoise powder that you fake your death with, a thing I didn’t mention about a monk and a bridge, some bricks we saw her putting into her house when she first moved in – weave together nicely to make for a satisfying ending to the romance and the revenge plots and everything.
Woo was apparently on set for the entire shoot, and also spent more than a week filming a fight scene with his daughter Angeles (later in MANHUNT). But it’s clear that over all the movie is not the vision of John Woo, and it doesn’t have any of the things that I think of as unique to his work. But it does have many of the qualities I look for in a martial arts fantasy: colorful heroes and villains, operatic twists and turns, special moves and styles, unique weapons, drama between teachers and students, and of course good fights (action coordinator: Stephen Tung Wai, HERO, SAVING GENERAL YANG, THE BATTLE AT LAKE CHANGJIN).
Of course it’s also notable as a late period Michelle Yeoh martial arts movie. She had been mostly doing Hollywood movies like MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA, SUNSHINE, BABYLON A.D. and THE MUMMY: TOMB OF A DRAGON EMPEROR for a while (save for small appearances in FEARLESS [director’s cut only] and TRUE LEGEND). And since then the only martial arts movie she’s been the lead in is CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN TIGER: SWORD OF DESTINY (and, if you count it, EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE). But producer Terence Chang developed the movie specifically to bring Yeoh back to action.
One caveat: at least on the DVD I watched, Yeoh was dubbed with someone else’s voice. I wondered if they kept Kelly Lin’s voice after she changed her face, for accuracy’s sake, but in retrospect it might be because the movie is in Mandarin. Although Yeoh did speak Mandarin in CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON she had to learn her lines phonetically. The cast includes actors from Taiwan, Korea, Hong Kong and China so I bet others are dubbed too, but she’s the only one I’d notice. Anyway, I got used to it.
I think the title is a pun – the assassins are reigning, I guess, and also her name is (sometimes) Drizzle and her sword style cuts people like a drizzle of rain. Also according to Wikipedia “The Chinese title of the film is Jianyu Jianghu, which translates as ‘swords and rain, rivers and lakes.’ The term jianghu refers to an imaginary world that is a parallel martial arts universe.” So it sounds like that title is a better pun, and way more poetic.
So anyway yeah, I recommend JOHN WOO’S MICHELLE YEOH IS SWORDS AND RAIN, RIVERS AND LAKES.