One of the few Asian movies to make it to any part of Australia or perhaps, any part of the English-speaking world, “The Assassins” is a movie about two childhood sweethearts torn apart by their covert mission to assassinate the most powerful man of their time, Cao Cao. Now fans of Chinese Period Drama like me, have probably watched other depictions of Cao Cao, a man known for his extreme ruthlessness and unmatchable cunning; in recent times there’s been 1994’s Romance of the 3 Kingdoms, 2008’s 3 Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon, 2009’s Red Cliff, 2010’s 3 Kingdoms and 2011’s The Lost Bladesman.
2012’s The Assassins adds to this list but for the first time – and this is my contention from having watched the movie not once but twice (I’ll tell you more about that later) – Cao Cao is portrayed not merely as a powerful despotic warlord, but as a man on a mission of his own: to unite the land and bring peace to its inhabitants.
Had the director, Zhao Lin Shan, cast anyone other than Chow Yun Fatt in the role of Cao Cao, I probably wouldn’t have borrowed the movie from my local Video Ezy, much less persuaded HRH, who has read the 600 year old historical novel by Luo Guan Zhong, touted to be the most popular novel in all of Asia, to watch it with me. Chow Yun Fatt, who HRH and I remember from watching many of his movies in childhood, not only humanised what many would consider a deeply inhumane figure, but carried an otherwise limp cast.
Liu Yi Fei, as Lingju his young lover, chosen by Cao Cao’s physician to warm the cockles of the old warlord’s heart while simultaneously finding a good time to knock him off, plays the part of the fair gentle Chinese maiden with ease, but it’s not a role in which she shows any previously unseen acting abilities. Hiroshi Tamaki, who plays Linju’s childhood sweetheart, Mu Shun, is handsome, but rather wooden in delivery.
It is my impression that even though the English title of the movie is “The Assassins”, the movie illuminates none other than the target of various assassination attempts, Cao Cao. Or maybe Chow Yun Fatt’s portrayal of the Cao Cai makes it seem that way. As I said, I wouldn’t have watched it if not for Chow Yun Fatt, whose eternal youthfulness has me wondering about his beauty regime and dietary habits. Chow Yun Fatt is nearing 60 but he looks much like what HRH and I remember as children. He has that ability to make a character seem likeable, even when it’s death threats he’s delivering.
As for the script, it was very well written. You’d have to understand Mandarin to appreciate the economy of words with which Cao Cao and Lingju’s sentiments were put across, but the logic of the dialogue between the two should be apparent in any language. At one point in the movie, Cao Cao reminisces about the many worthy adversaries he’s fought.
Cao Cao tells Linju that the only everlasting peace one will ever find is in the dust. To which she asks, “If the only peace is in the dust, why gain the world to lose your soul?”
Cao Cao says, “It’s only by gaining the world that you have peace; when the country is unified, there will be no more wars, no more death. Neighbours will no longer have to fight with one another.”
Linju goes on to wonder, silently, if the utopia this man she’s assigned to kill, is any different from the utopia inside her and Mu Shun’s heart. Could it be that Cao Cao the tyrant wants the very same things that they, as pawns in his private game of Chinese chess with numerous adversaries, do?
In a final showdown with the puppet Emperor he installed as a 15 year old, Cao Cao asserts, “He, who is not prepared to sacrifice his own happiness for the sake of the people, is not fit to rule.” A lesson for modern-day politicians, perhaps?
Cao Cao goes on to say, “If not for me (and my ruthlessness and tyranny) there would have been many more Emperors, many more wars, as nobles scrabble to get a piece of your kingdom.”
Cao Cao implies that it was he, who always held all the power and could easily have toppled the Emperor at any time, who protected the latter from real threats to the throne. Yet due to the foolish Emperor’s insecurity at his powerlessness, he, the Emperor, colluded with real threats to the throne to annihilate Cao Cao. In my mind, there is a parallel with modern-day politics in that people, wishing to lessen the power of government, vote into office popular if ineffectual leaders, who placate their fears of being ruled but fail to deliver objectives that will move society forward.
So why did I watch the movie twice? The first time was so that I could follow the plot and scrutinise the acting, the second time was so that I could savour the language used. Watching it a second time with Amanda also gave me the chance to explain to her how Chinese society has evolved. We still put a premium on intelligence and have plenty of respect for those whose intelligence accompanies wisdom, but long before Mao, Emperors were regarded as Gods and their every edicts obeyed to the letter.
I told her, “In those days, people found guilty of treason…”
“What’s treason, Mama?” she asked, after witnessing one of the Emperor’s officials quartered by horses through her little hands.
“Treason means to act against the government,” I explained. “In old China, the punishment for treason was death. Often, one wasn’t just sentenced to death, but one’s family – up to 9 generations – was sentenced to death too.” From reading a book about the Emperors of China given to me by a friend and a series of illustrated books I once found in a bookstore, I could also tell her that, “The methods of exacting death used to be most barbaric. Some Emperors favoured quartering by horses, others favoured something known as death of a 1000 cuts, one liked to have people drink from a pool filled with alcohol until they either drowned or died from alcohol intoxication, in which case they also drowned, one liked to load people into a cannon to be shot in mid-air…”
“Nowadays they just shoot people or hang them,” she interjected.
“Yes, that’s true. Although in some parts of the United States they put to death convicted felons through something known as an electric chair.”
Barbaric as the ancient Chinese methods are, I occasionally wonder if perhaps there’d be fewer incidences of pedophilia, rape, murder, mutilation or even acts of terrorism, if some of them were revived. After all, how many times have you heard the trial of a unrepentant rapist and said to yourself, “That guy should be castrated!”
I’ll leave you with that thought and a trailer from the “The Assasins” 2012, starring Chow Yun Fatt and Liu Yi Fei.