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Issue #139 HOME E-mail: mail@dighkmovies.com BACK ISSUES December 23rd, 2002

The Assassin
(1993; Prosper Films Productions)

A Masterpiece
Highly Recommended
Very Good
Marginal Recommendation
Not Recommended
Definitely Not Recommended

Cantonese: Saat yan je Tong Jaan
Mandarin: Sha ren zhe Tang Zhan
English: Killer Tong Jaan or Killer Tang Zhan

An offbeat entry in the early 90s HK period fantasy sweepstakes, THE ASSASSIN presents a definite change of pace but its good points are almost negated by a weak and uninteresting storyline. The film opens with Tong Po-ka (THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN's Zhang Fengyi) and his lover, Yiu (Rosamund Kwan Chi-lam), on the run from an enraged mob. Upon capture, Yiu is taken away and Tong is charged with kidnapping, having his eyes sewn shut as punishment. After enduring this torture for a time, he is forced to battle a group of other prisoners in a life and death match. As the winner, he is rechristened "Tong Jan," named the kingdom's chief assassin, and paired with neophyte killer Wong Kau (Max Mok Siu-chung). After numerous gory homicides (during which Tong frequently hacks his opponents into pieces), Tong finds himself unable to carry out his next assignment: the murder of a young child. Retreating from the world of martial arts, he reunites with Yiu, who now has a husband and son. In retribution for Tong's betrayal, the royal eunuch has Yiu's village burnt to the ground, prompting Tong to pick up his sword once more. In the interim, Wong has become the seasoned and ruthless killer that Tong once was, and now isn't above betraying his erstwhile friend, in order to gain the post of top assassin.

Some period fantasies require multiple viewings in order to be fully comprehensible to non-Chinese speaking viewers, but THE ASSASSIN could easily be viewed and understood without subtitles. Although that may sound like a blessing after some of the overly convoluted fare from this period (notably THE EAST IS RED and KUNG FU CULT MASTER), it is actually a liability. Director Billy Chung Siu-hung (PARAMOUNT MOTEL) and cinematographer Chiu Fei fill the screen with beautiful visuals, the production design is wonderfully florid (recalling both Shaw Brothers' stylized "interior exteriors" and the use of wintry locales in Japanese swordplay films like LADY SNOWBLOOD), and the action scenes offer an intriguing marriage of wire-enhanced acrobatics and the ultra-gory bloodletting found in Japanese samurai epics (the abundant carnage earned this the adults-only Category III rating). However, because of this extra care, the one-note screenplay and stock characters are particularly frustrating. Best known in the West for his fine performances in FAREWELL, MY CONCUBINE and TEMPTATION OF A MONK, distinguished Mainland actor Zhang Fengyi seems justifiably bored with this material, while Max Mok (sporting a silly heavy metal rocker wig) garners the most attention as the increasingly sadistic apprentice. As usual, Rosamund Kwan is relegated to the role of attractive scenery.

Cover art courtesy Tai Seng.

Zhang Fengyi. Image courtesy Tai Seng.

Rosamund Kwan. Image courtesy Tai Seng.
Tai Seng #01783 (U.S. Label)

Dolby Digital 2.0

Cantonese, Mandarin, English, and Vietnamese Language Tracks (all post-synched)

8 Chapters Illustrated in the Menu With Stills

Letterboxed (1.75:1)

Coded for ALL Regions

NTSC Format

77 Minutes (at 25 frames-per-second)

Contains brutal violence and graphic horror

DVD menu courtesy Tai Seng.

Hong Kong: III
Singapore: PG [Passed With Cuts]

The story behind this movie's U.S. distribution is a perfect example of just how convoluted the video industry can be. THE ASSASSIN was released on VHS and laserdisc in 1994 by World Video and Supply Company. This same label issued it on DVD in 2001, evidently unaware that their contract did not give them the option to offer the movie on this (at the time of the agreement, pre-extant) format. Tai Seng then acquired the rights for DVD, as well as the English dubbed version. However, as World's deal is still in place as far as VHS goes, Tai Seng can only offer the English version on this format. The company's DVD, however, contains Cantonese, Mandarin, English, and Vietnamese options (the latter two were prepared without the original music and effects tracks, a mistake as Jonathan Wong Bong-yin's score is one of the picture's primary assets). While it leaves something to be desired, the World edition is better in a couple of respects. Bright light sources like the sun and flames tend to bloom badly in Tai Seng's PAL-converted 1.75:1 transfer (which would run 80 minutes at 24 fps) and colors are deeper and more striking on the old version (which measures out at the same ratio). There is also some distracting digital instability on Tai Seng's DVD. However, their source print is in better shape and the new optional English subtitles are much more accurate than World's theatrical Chinese/English subs.

Tai Seng's dual layered release also offers extras, including filmographies for Zhang, Mok, Kwan, and Chung, numerous video promo spots for other titles, and an audio commentary featuring Ric Meyers, Bobby Samuels, and Frank Djeng. The latter provides the most noteworthy input (particularly about the author who penned the source novel and adapted it himself for the film), while Meyers makes odd suppositions (notably, that Francis Ford Coppola may have used THE ASSASSIN as an inspiration for BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA, a movie that came out a year before this one!), and spends far too much time going off on tangents and reading the credits of various personnel, which will be of little interest to most listeners (particularly those with access to the Hong Kong Movie Database, the uncredited source of Meyers' information). There is an awkward layer change at 56:25. A HK DVD edition has also been released by Winson Entertainment.


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