AKA: Song of the Assassins
Director: Daniel Lee Yan-Kong
Cast: William Feng Shaofeng, Gina Jin Chen, Zhang Hao, Hu Jun, Summer Xu Qing, Wang Qing-Xiang, Kenneth Tsang, Ray Lui, Norman Tsui, Jack Kao Kuo-Hsin
Duration: 119 mins.
By Paul Bramhall
After a long and tiring journey, in 2022 Code of Assassins finally made it to the screen. Filming began way back in 2017 with big plans to include an accompanying drama series and multiple proposed sequels, however various conflicts within production company Le Vision Pictures led to its delayed release, further confused by the death of the CEO at the time. early 2021. Original plans for a theatrical release ultimately fell through, and it finally debuted to minimal hype in the overcrowded VOD market 5 years after the cameras started rolling.
Director Daniel Lee probably needs no introduction to Hong Kong film fans, having remained one of the most controversial talents ever since his 1994 debut What a price Survivala retelling of The one-armed swordsman. His preference for highly stylized MTV-influenced editing often sees him accused of style over substance, and he’s hardly the strongest storyteller when it comes to gripping storytelling, yet his name rightfully pops up in any discussion. about Hong Kong action cinema. Included Code of Assassins Lee sat in the director’s chair a total of 14 times, and I can at least say I’m a fan of his second film Black mask from 1996 (which certainly had the benefit of Tsui Hark’s production and Yuen Woo-Ping as choreographer) and his 2010 wuxia 14 blades (which, like his debut, was also a re-imagining of a Shaw Brothers film this time around Secret Service of the Imperial Court being the title in question).
In short, Lee is at his best when given a simple story where he can let his visual flourishes run wild and make audiences go for the ride. Give him something more substantial, as we have seen with his epic historical battles such as those of 2008 Three Kingdoms: Dragon Resurrection and 2011 White Revenge, and is on less stable ground. With a complex storyline and conflicting characters to manage, Lee’s least appreciated trademarks include relying on endless expository junkyards and guiding complicated character relationships with all the subtlety of a Nicolas Cage meltdown. Following the clatter of swords and sandals Dragon blade in 2015 and the disastrous time travel film of 2016 Time Marauders, Code of Assassins has a lot to do (it’s worth noting that a film he completed after Code of Assassins it was actually released earlier, with the mountain rescue movie The climbers on screens in 2019).
The plot involves an assassin played by William Feng (Painted skin: the resurrection, Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon), whose family was wiped out and his arm cut off (though thankfully this isn’t Lee’s 2na assume The one-armed swordsman!) many years ago on a mysterious copper treasure map. Now decorated with a mechanical arm that is a part of Ash Army of Darknessa part Inspector Gadget, when the map reappears, Feng sets out to recover what he believes is rightfully his, but fails when he is blindsided by a group of “Western warriors” (not an American basketball team, despite the sound of the name). Forced to flee both his own clan and a host of others seeking the map, Feng becomes a fugitive, while at the same time trying to uncover the conspiracy that has been going on for years since the map was originally stolen. .
Based on a popular novel by Yuan Taiji, the story is relatively simple, however on screen it clearly could have benefited from trimming down some plot threads. Lee fills the narrative with characters and mishandled romantic subplots, so much so that you’d think he’s directing one of novelist Gu Long’s sprawling wuxia epics. While a director like Chor Yuen has always been up to the task of translating such complex wuxia tales for the screen (and often in 90 minutes!), Lee’s distinctive style often works against him here. Characters are introduced on-screen in their own cutaway-style 3-second music videos, usually set to a pulsing electric guitar or synthesizer, creating a bombardment of on-screen names that mean little to the viewer and often serve little narrative purpose as well. after they are introduced.
On the plus side, a supporting cast filled with kung-fu veterans and Hong Kong cinema heavyweights serves their purpose in adding some levity to proceedings. Code of Assassins would be Kenneth Tsang’s final performance (A better tomorrow, The killer), who sadly passed away before its release, while the likes of Norman Tsui (Duel to the death, The booty), Du Yu-Ming (Massacre in Xian, Journey to the West), and Yuen Cheung-Yan (Shaolin drunkard, A heroic battle) all appear as clan members after the map.
The action is perhaps the most interesting aspect of Code of Assassins. Helmed by Han Guanhua, who was responsible for the action in the likes of Animal world AND Predators of Europe, along with Lee is a distinctive steampunk aesthetic that is utilized with varying results. The visuals go a bit overboard with CGI cutaways showing the inner workings of Feng’s mechanical arm every time she’s about to use it, as the novelty wears off quickly watching a bunch of CGI nuts and bolts come to life. The arm includes everything from a detachable hand on a chain, razor-sharp claws, a built-in expandable sword, projectile ball bearings, and probably more. He’ll need it, though, as his opponents are armed with everything from an equally loaded umbrella, to razor-sharp wings that look like something out of a Marvel movie.
Speaking of Marvel, Lee takes some liberties that are clearly influenced by the superhero franchise, the most obvious being that whenever Feng dons his assassin mask, we get Iron man-esque shots of his face inside the mask during battle scenes (and just wait to see how he takes it off). Though heavily reliant on CGI, the action scenes are entertaining and it’s good to see the likes of Norman Tsui (even though he’s twice his size) pulling the moves. Lee seems to want to pair the steampunk visuals with a modern soundtrack that doesn’t quite work, often making some of the more over-the-top action feel like video game cut scenes, and some of the costumes feel modern enough to take you out of the story. In particular, I could have sworn in some scenes that Feng was strutting around with a North Face winter jacket hanging in my closet.
Outside of the action, though, the pacing is a busy slog. Shots of Feng meditating on a variety of rooftops look like they belong in a green tea commercial, and attempts to create a romance between her character and a mysterious woman played by Gina Jin Chen (Ghost Chief, Eternal love) are laughable, not least because of their lack of chemistry or emotion. Comparatively, a character’s later tearful outburst over the death of a loved one is so unexpected that it elicits laughs for showing too much emotion. Code of Assassins the bigger problem though is one that plagues so many of Lee’s productions, in that whenever he wants to advance the plot he becomes unnecessarily long-winded. Once everything is out in the open, instead of relying on the audience to get it, Feng delivers a painfully long monologue that explains the entire plot in far too much detail.
Even once the final action scene reaches its conclusion, we get yet another double character twist that comes in the form of an unnecessarily drawn-out speech, ensuring that any momentum before the credits rolls is killed dead-on, closing things off with a yawn rather than a bang. All of this would probably be a lot more forgivable if the running time wasn’t a hefty 2 hours, which makes the time where there’s no action on screen ever more unbearable as the narrative progresses. Code of Assassins it was said to be a passion project for Daniel Lee, it’s just a shame that the best chance it had of being a good movie would have been for him to leave the director’s chair to someone else. Unfortunately, he didn’t.
Rating by Paul Bramhall: 5.5/10