Directed by: Victor Vu
Starring: Huynh Dong, Midu, Khuong Ngoc
One of the most expensive films ever made in Vietnam, Sword of the Assassin strains every sinew attempting to reach for the epic. Right from the start, this martial arts action fantasy nails its colours to the mast, sweeping across a lake ringed by mountains, the camera soaring with the orchestral score. It’s this tone that continues in Victor Vu’s film; adapted from a novel by Bui Anh Tan, as every trope is reached for, thrown together into a glossy concoction that achieves a surprisingly satisfying conclusion.
The prologue, when the camera has finally stopped admiring the scenery, sees temple guardian and martial arts master Su Phu (Minh Thuan) quickly grapple with a stone lion before taking in an orphan. Jumping forward twelve years, the orphan Nguyen Vu (Huynh Dong) is now a talented fighter in his own right; skilled with his hands and capable of fantastical feats, even if he can’t quite control them.Time at the temple is limited, their idyll invaded by a cowardly villain in the shape of Royal Court official Le Dai Nhan (Jayvee Mai The Hiep), complete with villainous black headgear. He’s in the employ of Thai Hau (Van Trang), the evil queen who framed Nguyen Vu’s family for murder, executing all but him in the process. With the addition of beautiful assassin Hoa Xuan (Midu), also bearing royal grudges, friendly pretender Vuong Gia (Van Anh), and sinister henchman Tran Tong Quan (Khuong Ngoc), the cast is assembled to chase down a blood letter allegedly detailing Thai Hau’s crimes.
It’s all nonsense all the time, Nguyen Vu somehow managing to bump into a person of importance every time he looks up. Everyone is tied to everyone in a neat little package, each character coming with the traits required for their respective positions in the plot. Nguyen Vu is handsome, kindly and brave, but also something of a country bumpkin, overpaying for menial supplies and gawping at women too long. His romantic counterpart Hoa Xuan is the traditionally sparky woman, capable of taking on a whole swarm of guards but easily carried off by her beau.Worse comes on the villainous side of the equation, everyone sketched in such vile strokes it’s a wonder no one arrested them all years ago. Thai Hau spits invective every time she opens her mouth, her court mandarin Le Dai Nhan couldn’t be any more of a snivelling worm if he tried, and Tran Tong Quan not only looks like a storybook monster, but spends all his time sneering like one too.
Their ongoing series of climatic wuxia battles, hammy romantic bonding, and entirely obvious double-crossing goes round in ever-diminishing circles, interest draining from bland shenanigans throughout. The background is pretty enough, but often shot in shallow focus, there’s not all that much to see anyway. At least Vu puts the budget up on screen, the entire affair impressively glossy and nicely choreographed.
Firmly on the path towards an amiably forgettable conclusion, Sword of the Assassin surprisingly manages to step off pre-laid tracks, the finale taking turns both unexpectedly bloody and lenient. It has the effect of shaking the plot from its long slumber, injecting life when it seemed no one was all that interested anymore. Coupled with an impressive final battle, Vu’s film at last manages to hit the epic note, however briefly, that it’s strived for from the start. In that one flash, an otherwise mediocre effort becomes that much more interesting.
Koch Media presents Sword of the Assassin available on Digital HD 15 February 2016. Order on iTunes: http://bit.ly/SOTAitunes