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Reign of Assassins -- Film Review

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VENICE -- "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" relocate to ancient China in the dazzling martial-arts epic "Reign of Assassins," in which Asian superstars Michelle Yeoh and Jung Woo-Sung play an ordinary married couple, each unaware the spouse is a world-class assassin. Replacing guns and bombs with flashing swordplay, aerial fighting and fantasy effects, the beautifully balanced story finds time for humor and a piercingly romantic finale. This lush visual treat should have no trouble finding kung fu audiences, with crossover potential to the Western art circuit. It bears the double direction of Taiwanese writer-director Su Chao-Pin ("Silk") and genre master John Woo.

The delightful animated credit sequence that opens the film is a taste of fantasy to come. It is followed by an impossibly fast introduction to the film's characters and backstory guaranteed to throw unprepared viewers into a panic. No fear, the large cast of villains -- and they're all bad in this movie -- gets sorted out over the next two hours along with the incredibly convoluted story.

The main concept to grasp in the opening fight sequence, set in an ancient monastery before a giant statue of Buddha, is that the earthly remains of a mystical Indian monk have magical properties, able to grant control of the martial-arts world to their possessor. And the terrible Dark Stone gang wants them. Their most invincible and ruthless assassin is Drizzle (Kelly Lin), a beautiful girl who has been trained by the Dark Stone leader, the Wheel King. Having just killed an important minister, she also dispatches his son, Renfeng. All of this happens before the film begins, but it's good to keep in mind.

Back to the ancient monastery, where Drizzle kills the man she loves, the monk Wisdom, rather than repent as he wishes. But his death so disturbs her that she decides to quit the gang.

Ordering a surgeon to "make her look older," she is transformed into Zeng Jing, played with her customary aplomb by Hong Kong's kung fu queen Michelle Yeoh ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"). To cover her tracks, she rents a house in the city and opens a market stall selling cloth. There, she attracts the attention of a messenger boy, Ah-Sheng (Korean star Jung Woo-Sung in his first martial-arts role). Their humorously told courtship, which ends in a happy marriage, is absorbing enough to forget that no fighting has taken place for a long time.

Until one day, Zeng Jing and Ah-Sheng are in the bank when a sinister gang of black-robed robbers appears. Just as they are about to be run through with swords, Zeng Jing springs into action and saves their lives in a brilliant one-woman show.

Alas, her technique is recognizable a mile off, and the Wheel King knows Drizzle is back in town. He calls to him the three most terrible assassins in his gang -- Lei Bin (Shawn Yue); the bratty girl murderer Turquoise (Barbie Hsu); and the Magician (Leon Dai) -- to force her to hand over the monk's remains.

Little logic prevails over the final action sequences, which take place near the speed of light. Just when Zeng Jing is overcome and all looks lost, her clumsy husband retrieves his rusty sword and reveals his true identity. His heroic transformation doesn't come as much of a surprise, but it is an exhilarating moment that makes the last scenes exciting as well as touching, when the husband and wife open old wounds, fight each other and test their love and spirit of self-sacrifice.

The ending is moving and poetic, confirming the acting depths of the two principals, who are much more than martial-arts stars. Another nod goes to the character actors, who round out the film with unexpected humor. Like the cast, the top-grade technical staff comes from all over Asia.

Although the directing role of Woo, who produced with Lion Rock partner Terence Chang, is not that clear, it is easy to spot his oft-used theme of facial and identity changes ("Face/Off," "Mission Impossible: 2").

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Sales Agent: Fortissimo Films
Production: Lion Rock Prods., Beijing Galloping Horse Film & TV Prods., Media Asia Group, Zhejiang Dongyang Dragon Entertainment, Gamania Digital Entertainment, Lumiere Motion Picture Corp., Beijing Heguchuan TV & Film Co.
Cast: Michelle Yeoh, Jung Woo-Sung, Wang Xueqi, Barbie Hsu, Shawn Yue, Kelly Lin, Guo Xiaodong, Jiang Yiyan
Directors: Su Chao-Pin, John Woo
Screenwriter: Su Chao-Pin
Producers: John Woo, Terence Chang
Director of photography: Horace Wong
Production designer: Yang Baigui
Music: Peter Kam
Costumes: Emi Wada
Editor: Angie Lam
Action director: Stephen Tung
No rating, 117 minutes