dvd let­ter­box

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Michael Bodey

DVD Let­ter­box is al­ways in­trigued by de­vel­op­ments in Chinese cin­ema, and not just be­cause the boss (News Cor­po­ra­tion chair­man and chief ex­ec­u­tive Ru­pert Mur­doch) re­cently called for China’s state con­trollers to open up the im­port­ing and dis­tri­bu­tion of films.

China’s mod­ern film­mak­ers, gen­er­ally clas­si­fied by their gen­er­a­tion, have made some fas­ci­nat­ing, var­ied movies. And now it ap­pears China re­alises film — and sport — is a po­tent means of soft diplo­macy. Cer­tainly the Amer­i­can­i­sa­tion of the 20th cen­tury was aided im­mea­sur­ably by Hol­ly­wood.

For the most part re­cent state-spon­sored Chinese films have been earnest af­fairs while the in­de­pen­dent ‘‘sixth gen­er­a­tion’’ of Chinese film­mak­ers is pro­duc­ing some lit­tle gems (in­clud­ing Venice Golden Lion win­ner Still Life). Mean­while, some older ‘‘fifth gen­er­a­tion’’ direc­tors are re­turn­ing home to shep­herd the Chinese film­mak­ing in­dus­try.

John Woo co-di­rected the big Chinese wuxia or mar­tial arts hero film Reign of As­sas­sins, with Su Chao-Bin. It closed the Bris­bane Film Fes­ti­val last year with­out an Aus­tralian dis­trib­u­tor then — sur­pris­ingly, be­cause it has much to rec­om­mend it.

The film is set in the Ming dy­nasty dur­ing a time of du­elling as­sas­sins, wherein a for­mer as­sas­sin, Michelle Yeoh’s Driz­zle, tries to aban­don her for­mer life but is dragged back in, swords flash­ing.

I’m al­ways hes­i­tant to ex­plain plots for the big wuxia films be­cause, frankly, they tend to be the weak­est com­po­nent, merely a rack on which to hang big fight scenes and per­haps a ro­mance.

The same is true here; the film bat­tles its own in­con­sis­ten­cies, nar­ra­tive leaps and seem­ingly ad hoc events and bat­tles to main­tain its steady mix of solem­nity and mis­chief.

Yet main­tain it, it does. Reign of As­sas­sins (Mad­man, MA15+, 143min, $29.95) nails its glo­ri­ous mar­tial arts scenes and beau­ti­ful vi­su­als (es­pe­cially vi­brant on Blu-ray), all the while keep­ing a smile. It’s some­thing state-spon­sored films can’t man­age. It doesn’t rely on dig­i­tal ef­fects as awk­wardly as Woo’s pre­vi­ous epic, Red Cliff, did, and it keeps faith with the core prin­ci­ples of wuxia, the sto­ry­telling wrapped in phi­los­o­phy. Reign of As­sas­sins isn’t as grace­ful as Crouch­ing Tiger, Hid­den Dragon and it has a dif­fer­ent wit. If this Chi­ne­seTai­wanese film presages a fu­ture for Chinese film­mak­ing, it will be a fun ride.

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