Review Date: 8/15/04
Action Director: Ching Siu Tung
Cast: Zhao Wei, Nicky Wu
A puzzling, low budget, shot on video ATV production, with plentiful (but disappointing) helpings of kung fu action from action veteran Ching Siu Tung. Legend has it that the mysterious Book Of Tai will make whoever owns it all-powerful. The emperor of China seeks out the book, which lies hidden in the depths of an ancient booby trapped tomb, but he lacks the final key to the chamber. Then his powermad treachery is revealed, as he turns on his own men, resulting in the death of his general's pregnant wife (Zhao Wei). She gives birth prematurely to a daughter before dying, and eighteen years later the daughter grows up to become a great warrior (also Zhao Wei). Also at this time, a new plot is unhatched to find the ancient keys and retrieve the Book Of Tai. Serving the evil eunuch of the East Chamber is master assassin Yu Khan (wooden Nicky Wu), who manages to stir up all sorts of trouble and steal Zhao Wei's heart. There's also a complicated love rectangle involving Yu Khan's adorable, but devious, colleague and the second prince to the emperor's throne. And as if things weren't complicated enough, the Japanese are also after the book. Everyone double-crosses everyone else multiple times, and the plot spastically flies all over the place. Eventually everything turns out for the best, for our heroes at least.
What's most intriguing and puzzling about this film is that there's also a TV series that features the same characters and footage. Is the film a pilot for the TV series? No, because it's a completely closed story with nowhere to go. Additionally, the first episode of the series starts exactly where the movie does, and only diverges after the daughter is born. So, is the movie actually a condensed retelling of the series? Quite possibly. The bizarre and abrupt cuts, combined with the incredibly dense collection of relationships and plot threads supports this theory. The film also attempts to collect as many of the action sequences as possible, which makes you wonder just how long, boring, and convoluted the original series was. Speaking of action, the fight scenes are nicely staged by Ching Siu Tung, and Zhao Wei and Nicky Wu hold their own quite well. However, they're both outshined by the real stuntmen in the cast, including an old Japanese master who steals the show. The editing is fairly weak and the fights seem to lack any real punch, but they're still fun to watch nonetheless. The music is also on par with a TV production (which is not saying much), and the visual effects are laughably bad. (could you even create worse looking skeletons if you tried?) The acting is quite good and Zhao Wei is adorable. Unfortunately, pop star Nicky Wu delivers one of the stiffest and most unconvincing performances I've ever seen. In his defense, his lifeless and stoic delivery is probably on purpose, but there's just NOTHING going on with him. He just stares blankly and rarely utters a word, completely devoid of any emotion or depth. Overall, if you like convoluted and twisted Chinese historical drama, "Assassin Swordsman" might just be the movie for you.