Cao Cao is defined as a warlord and one of the last great chancellors of the Eastern Han Dynasty during the Three Kingdoms period. He has had many different incarnations in the movies such as 1931's "The Witty Sorcerer", "The Weird Man", "Red Cliff" and many more He is sometimes portrayed comically and sometimes ruthless. In the most recent appearance in "The Assassins" he is played a little more seriously. What is played up in this rendition of his Cao Cao's life is that, even as he is getting older, he still is impossible to kill. That is his legend. He is also shown in more private moments in his chamber thinking about his life.
Cao Cao, played this time by Yun-Fat Chow, is reigning supreme in northern China after defeating many a enemy. He is older now and uses most of him time thinking about his life and where it is going. The story is told from the perspective of Ling Ju (Yifei Liu), an orphaned daughter to the father of one of Cao's enemies. She is enslaved at a young age to be an assassin in hopes to one day have a chance to kill Cao. Along the way she falls in love with Mu Shun (Hiroshi Tamaki), a man who has been castrated to become a Eunuch. After time moves on, they are separated but then find themselves inside Cao Cao's palace. Ling Ju has infiltrated deep enough to become Cao's mistress without him know her true intentions, to kill him. Through the remainder of the film, there are several attempts on his life coming from various motivations and people. Certain alliances take place to alter various people's fates.
Director Linshan Zhao plays out "The Assassins" more like a historical drama than an action epic. There are a couple of fight sequence's but the majority of the film is spent with people postulating about where in history they are. Is this the end of a dynasty? Is there a way to stop the inevitable from happening? The setting of the film all takes place in two kingdoms separated by a large river. The audience is helped with the geography by cartoon-like maps showing where the current action is taking place. It helps to add a little fun to the goings-on's. Chow's performance is exceptional. He is older and playing a more wise and introspective character in his later years. He often gazes far into the distance, even when he's in an enclosed room. It's one of his better roles in recent years.
There are several directorial curiosities. The opening shot is extremely inventive and well executed, employing some nice CGI, however the cinematic creativity of it is never revisited for the rest of the movie. It is a nice moment that could have been reused and peppered throughout but it never does. The action scenes seem to be truncated and end rather quickly. There are times where is seems like the audience is being reminded that this is not an action movie. The film is on the drier side and could have used at least one or two more action driven scenes. These are not huge detriment but just curious decisions. The sets and costumes are simply beautiful, as they usually tend to be in these epics. In the end, you have a mostly truthful tale that is full of fictional and non-fictional characters.
Well Go USA presents "The Assassins" in a 2.35 :1 aspect ratio using an AVC codec. Colors have nice definition and appear lush and rich. There are many colorful garbs worn through the film and they look gorgeous. Image detail is slightly inconsistent as some shots appear highly detailed while other shots are soft looking and flat. It could perhaps be more with the filming process and not the transfer. This does not happen much but it can be noticeable at times. There are many set pieces full of horizontal lines where in many cases could cause the video to jitter but here it is not much a problem. For the most part this is a very good presentation.
There are two DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio tracks. One is in Mandarin and the other is English, both sound equally great. Dialogue is never hard to hear and is realistically rendered. The opening shot has some nice surround sound effects over a black screen where you can hear tiny scurrying feet but not sure what is going on. In the few action scenes, there is nice directionality and fidelity. There is some low end bass but it is not too prevalent throughout. Finally, the subtitles are fairly easy to read.
There is a short Behind the Scenes extra a little under 15 minutes long that shows some footage on the set. Other than that, there is only an HD trailer for the film.
"The Assassins" blends fictional and non-fictional characters to tell the mostly true story of the last days of the Han dynasty. There is no epic battle to signify it's finality. This is a contemplative story dealing with a legend seeing the end. It's a little on the dry side however it sticks closely to delivering a realistic and intimate portrayal of Cao Cao's final days in power. The video has some issues with softness but for the most part looks gorgeous. Audio never pushes the envelope but sounds adequate. Extras are slim. Recommended for those who like historical dramas that are light on action.