Fresh off their groundbreaking success with One-Armed Swordsman (1967), Shaw Brothers re-teamed writer-director Chang Cheh with iconic star Jimmy Wang Yu for The Assassin. More than two-thousand years ago during China’s “warring states period”, numerous city-state kingdoms were consolidated into seven major states, along with a few minor enclaves. Wealthy warlords vied for power, aiming to unite China under their iron fist. At the palace of the Han emperor (Cliff Lok), scheming prime minister Han Kui (Wong Chung-Shun) suggests they should betray their own people to the Qing invaders in return for a share in the new empire. But the boy ruler prefers the sagely council of Yen Chung Tzu (Tien Feng). Enraged, Han Kui stages a secret attack on Tzu’s family.
Meanwhile, miles away from the corrupt Han court, wise Master Wu Ji (Fang Mian) runs a school for righteous swordsmen, stressing the ideals of honour, valour and decency. His prized pupil is Nieh Zheng (Jimmy Wang Yu), who defends his ladylove Xia Ying (Chiao Chiao) against the lewd advances of rich boy, Xu Shi (Cheung Pooi-Saan). Expelled for dirty fighting, Xu betrays Master Wu to the prime minister whose killers murder the old man and slaughter his students. All except for Nieh Zheng who single-handedly trounces the enemy. Years after taking revenge on Xu Shi, Nieh Zheng is living as a humble butcher when Yen Chung Tzu arrives and offers him a fortune in gold for a deadly assignment. Zheng’s mother (Lam Ying) convinces him not to go, but a few years after she dies and his loyal sister (Cheng Lui) has married, the swordsman agrees to set out on a suicide mission.
Some readers may spot a few plot parallels between this film and Zhang Yimou’s acclaimed masterpiece: Hero (2003). Both movies were inspired by the story of a great swordsman who attempted to assassinate the First Emperor of China. It is a popular fable amongst the Chinese even though it essentially boils down to the story of a man who dithered for ages over whether to kill the Qing Emperor, then failed to do so. However, Chang Cheh tweaks the target of Nieh Zheng’s wrath and reworks the historical drama into an affirmation of his own manly ideals. One best embodied by that old John Wayne adage: “a man’s gotta do, what a man’s gotta do.”
As so often in Chang’s films, women are, somewhat objectionably it must be said, portrayed as a hindrance to those out to do good in this world. Both Xia Ying and Zheng’s mother believe it is better to live in peace than to take a stand for what is right. “Give up these dreams. Be content with what we are”, urges Xia Ying, only for Zheng to argue: “It would be wonderful to die a hero’s death and save the country.” In our troubled times it might sound perverse to commend a movie that so unabashedly valorises a suicidal assassin, but The Assassin outlines its argument intelligently with great poetry and skill. It remains one of the rare Chang Cheh/Shaw Brothers epics as concerned with character and drama as action and spectacle. Domesticity drives Zheng to become an embittered alcoholic until Yen Chung Tzu puts a sword back in his hand, allowing him a chance to protest an injustice. Some of the film’s sloganeering (“The only way to achieve our ambitions is to die for them”) is debatable to say the least, but on a human level it is moving watching Zheng shower his beloved with gifts, knowing he will never return. The action, choreographed Liu Chia-liang (a great director in his own right), is largely confined to the third act, wherein our man Jimmy explodes into righteous fury killing literally hundreds of villainous soldiers.