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.