Code of the Assassins was originally released in China last summer with the English title Song of the Assassins, but now WellGo has renamed it and brought it to the US, streaming and on disc. The title change doesn’t seem to make much of a difference: there isn’t really a Code in the film, nor is there a Song. But there are a lot of Assassins.
William Feng, from the Detective Dee movies and Soi Cheang’s Monkey King series, stars as one of the Assassins. A hectic bit of narration gives us the backstory and a swirl of dusky CGI images: there are two kingdoms, East Mulberry and Southern Pagoda, and they are perpetually at war. Between them lies Ghost Valley, home of the Assassins, who are dedicated to promoting world peace by killing people, presumably in exchange for money. The rulers of both kingdoms are interested in finding a map to hidden treasure, which was created some years ago by Feng’s father. After drawing the map, the father along with the rest of Feng’s clan was murdered, leaving him to be raised by the Assassins. Now he wants revenge. One murder assignment leads to another, unraveling a dense collection of betrayals, hidden identities, and elaborate schemes, none of which make a whole lot of sense, either as they unfold or in retrospect. Which is odd, because director Daniel Lee (Black Mask, Dragon Blade) is such a literal filmmaker, dedicated to hammering home every possible nuance of character or action.
At his best, this leads Lee to allow his stunt crew to display some fun action and a whole bunch of inventive mechanical killing gadgets. Feng lost his hand at some point, and has been fashioned with a metal one that has all kind of hidden tricks, none of which are remotely plausible but are nonetheless a lot of fun. At least the first time we see them. But every time we do, Lee cuts to a low-rent CGI graphic of the clockwork innards of the hand, complete with swirling camera and whooshing sound effects. The repetition is deadly, as are the character introductions that most of the major Assassins get: the actor doing some action poses against a black computer background with that same whooshing score and a title card giving their nickname. This comic book effect can be a lot of fun (as in 2012’s Tai Chi Zero), but the fact that they all look the same deadens the appeal.
Lee’s direction is worst though when he’s revealing mysteries. In one early scene, we begin with a target watching some dancing girls. Then we see him in his room with one of them: or is he? Before she takes any action, Lee cuts to a close-up of a tattoo on her shoulder, then a flashback to the bare shoulder of the dancer we just saw, and then, in case we don’t recognize the tattoo, he cuts to the same symbol which we saw a few minutes earlier at the Assassin base. Only then are we allowed to see the Assassin in disguise kill her target. Lee will do this kind of thing a few more times, killing any kind of mystery or momentum to his scenes. It gets so bad that, near the end, after Lee cuts away from a dramatic moment to explain the plot he then fails to ever return to the original scene, such that we are left wondering how one of our heroes escaped a seemingly life-threatening situation.
The action scenes and gadgets are pretty neat though, in the manner of so much contemporary Chinese wuxia. Your enjoyment of these will vary based on your tolerance for digitized action, but Lee and his choreographer (Jackie Chan Stunt Team veteran Han Guan-hua (Go Away, Mr Tumor, Animal World) make pretty good use of the form. It’s all filmed in a hazy brown and gray, unfortunately, and everyone and everything looks way too smooth, every face and surface polished to a frictionless sheen. The supporting cast is filled out with a handful of veteran actors: Jack Kao, Ray Lui, Kenneth Tsang, Norman Tsui, which helps when every old man in the movie sports the same haircut and goatee. At it’s best, Code of the Assassins plays as a more baroque extension of Zhang Yimou’s Shadow, albeit lacking Zhang’s visual sense (always the best thing about a Zhang film) or willingness to let his actors run wild. But both films present a dazzlingly complex reflection of the Byzantine internal politics and in-fighting and scheming of the Chinese state, past and present. To his credit, while Lee is didactic with his plotting, he lets the film’s subtext more or less alone. Code of the Assassins only apparently ends on a note of hope for the future: the people’s peace can only be maintained by a bureaucracy of ruthless hired killers.