Like too many modern movies, there are so many characters in the fantastic and highly entertaining Chinese action film Code of the Assassins (also known as Song of the Assassins, or, if you prefer Chinese, Qing mian Xiuluo) that it’s best if you just assume you’ll lose track of what’s happening at some point. No worries, you can pick up the narrative thread later, as the film does a good job of re-introducing storylines and elements as needed.
But as with most wuxia movies, this isn’t a character driven adventure as much as it’s a delightful visual feast of wire work, martial arts, and visual effects. Like a Marvel action film, it also features a group of heroes and villains all of whom have comic book names like “White Judge”, “Purple Wing”, “Golden Eye”, and “Blue Asura”. Most of them also like to wear grotesque golden masks too, making it even harder to keep track of who’s who.
The story revolves around Qi Jun Yuan (William Feng), who watched as his entire clan was executed by a duplicitous client after his father made a beautiful brass map pointing the way to a fantastic treasure. An orphan, he was adopted by a highly disciplined group of assassins known as Ghost Valley. He lost his arm in a battle, but the Assassins have mastered steampunk technology, so it’s been replaced by this marvelous metal arm that’s powerful and has all sorts of hidden weapons tucked in its innards. The best of them is this sort of whirling shuriken that can release its blades while spinning, allowing precise attacks.
Determined to wreak revenge on his parent’s killers, he’s trained and become a fearsome assassin. When rumors of the brass map reappearing make it to Ghost Valley, he’s expressly prohibited from getting involved by the leader of the assassin clan but, of course, he ignores it and gets involved. And what a complex story it is, with clans meeting to negotiate ownership while secretly plotting their own nefarious actions. Some of the characters have special names and amazing abilities (Black Judge is terrific in this regard) while others seem to be chameleons, able to blend into scenes without anyone noticing until it’s too late. Fight!
Director Daniel Lee is both loved and hated by the wuxia community, with this his fifteenth big budget genre martial arts fantasy movie. I’ll be honest, Code of the Assassins really is over the top in so many ways. Even the music: It features a terrific, but oddly jarring Chinese traditional + jazzy rock soundtrack that doesn’t really fit. Still, it’s hard not to be impressed by the stunning sets, even if you’re simultaneously trying to figure out this overly convoluted story.
Like a video game, there are also what can only be described as cut scenes, including the cool but rather repetitive steampunk animations of how Qi’s arm spins, whirs, and produces various weapons. Characters? Love story? Satisfying resolution? As Gerard Butlet might have misquoted in the banal 300, “This. Is. Wuxia!”
Nonetheless, I had a blast watching this film and love the audacious imaginative genre with its sweeping epic narratives, breathtaking fight scenes (that can be rather splattery) and, yes, typically shallow characterizations. Like a new entry in the MCU, great wuxia films are far more about action sequences loosely connected by a story that might or might not actually make sense.
There’s a lot going for Code of the Assassins, so if you can find a chance to see it – ideally on the big screen! – definitely do so. Just accept in advance that you’re likely to get confused about what’s going on in the story so you don’t get too frustrated. Definitely recommended for fans of this popular Chinese fantasy genre.