“You put a butterfly on a man’s sword?”
Despite the badass-sounding title and the gritty, violence-inspiring cover art, The Assassin’s Blade is actually one of the most flighty, lighthearted martial arts epics there is.
Zhu Yanzhi (Charlotte Choi) has disguised herself as a boy to attend an all-male martial arts school, to learn sword fighting from a renowned master. There, she faces many challenges, most notable her developing romantic feelings for the master’s adopted son, known only as “Big Brother” (Chun Wu). Zhu must then choose between her old life and her new one when a family crisis means she might have to return home before her training is complete.
As the movie begins, it feels like we’ve missed the first act. Zhu is already dressing as a boy and attending the martial arts school, with her family’s approval. We have zero context as to how this decision came about or why it’s important. There are no girls allowed at the school, that’s a given, and aside from a few throwaway lines of wanting to “see the world,” that’s all we get as to Zhu’s reasoning. Once at school, there’s not a whole lot of worrying about whether she’ll be caught. What little dramatic tension there is comes from her having to be tested after her first hundred days at the school, and the brewing romance between her and Big Brother.
If mid-1960s Audrey Hepburn had made a kung fu movie, it would have been this. It’s just so shiny and happy and upbeat. The fight scenes strike me as very reminiscent of old-timey musicals from the glory days of Technicolor. Everyone’s moving in time with each other, more along with the score than in battle. All the costumes are brightly colored, and outdoor location shooting makes the most of lush, rural East Asian countryside. Nothing, however, is more bright and colorful than our protagonist, Zhu. She’s so upbeat, so perky, and so gosh-darned cute that she carries the entire film. Cynical viewers might balk at her continuous positive attitude, but actress Charlene Choi makes it seem natural. Grin as she teaches the other boys to sew their torn uniforms. Giggle as she joins the fellows on a night out for drinking. Get all heart-fluttery as Big Brother sees her in a new light. That sort of thing.
As you can guess, things take a turn for the serious once Zhu leaves school and reunites with her family. Her separation from Big Brother means the melodrama becomes so thick you can stab it with the nearest katana. It all leads to an incongruously downbeat ending, but one that still works in an “old-timey love story” sort of way. While things get tear-jerky, Zhu never loses the positive attitude that marked the first half of the film. The film’s climax gets to the heart of the story’s message, that strength of moral character is just as important as physical fighting prowess.
This is a gorgeous-looking film, made all the more gorgeous when viewed through this 1.85:1/1080 high definition Blu-ray transfer. The many scenic outdoor vistas really shine with remarkable clarity and detail. Colors and flesh tones are rich and natural as well. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is also good, with the only language option being the original Cantonese with English subtitles. The theatrical trailer is the only extra.
The movie’s original title was Butterfly Lovers. The sure sounds sissy, and yet it’s a more appropriate moniker for what this movie really is. Just as the main character attends school in disguise, this is a movie in disguise. The Assassin’s Blade is an old-fashioned romance dressed up as a historical martial arts epic. It’s a simplistic story, but one well-told. If this is the type of thing that interests you, then give it a look.