I first read about Assassin (1993) in the book Sex and Zen, and A Bullet in the Head, and the synopsis intrigued me; curiously, I had never heard of it before. Despite being out on World Video, who was second only to Tai Seng in HK movies on vhs, it took me a long time to track it down. So, I've owned it on video for awhile, and now I get to review it on DVD.
The Story: Assassin has a great premise, one of my favorites. A simple country man, Tong Po (Fengyi Zhang of Farewell to my Concubine) falls in love with a girl, Yiu (the always reliable Rosamund Kwan), who he is not allowed to marry. They try to run away together, but they are captured and he is thrown into a jail where his eyes are sewn shut. Before the film hits the ten-minute mark, his eyes are opened only to find himself and some fellow prisoners in a gladiatorial ring where its kill or be killed. This is a 'survival of the fittest' contest in which the winner gets to become an assassin for the evil (and of course supremely powerful) Eunuch Ngai. Tong Po wins, of course, and is renamed Tong Chop. Flash forward in time and Tong Chop has now become a deadly, cold killing machine ("I kill because I want to live."), second in command of the barbaric assassins, and the idol of new young assassin Wong Kau, who Tong Chop takes under his wing. During one nighttime raid, Tong sees his beloved Yui and his past starts creeping back on him, so he defects and hides out with her in her village where she has tragically (for him, anyway) remarried and has a son. But, his old life as a prominent killer is not easily left behind, and both his protégé Wong Kau and the powerful eunuch ("Those who don't follow me will become my ghosts") are out for his blood, leading to the final conclusion.
Fengyi Zhang is good, but doesn't quite have the charisma of an action star lead. I've always imagined that Xin Xin Xiong (Once Upon a Time in China 3, The Blade) would have been perfect, someone with the martial skill to appear dangerous, yet have the looks to appear sullen at the same time. Or, it could just be that Fengyi Zhang wears the worst wigs I've seen since a 60's Viking picture...In my opinion, the two best cinematographers in Hong Kong are Christopher Doyle (Happy Together, Chunking Express) and Zhao Fei (Sweet and Lowdown, Raise the Red Lantern), of whom the latter did Assassin (though this is no Woody Allen or Zhang Yimou film, that's for sure)...The plot moves quite briskly, and the action is pretty gruesome with planty of slow motion shots of decapitations, blood spurting, some heart ripping, and so forth. Very Category III, stuff, for sure.
In Conclusion: Its a pretty nice entry into the swordplay action pictures of the early 90's. I'd say if you look at your DVD collection and see Duel to the Death, The Sword, Bride with White Hair, Stormriders, and maybe Butterfly and Sword and Swordsman 2, then you should definitely give Assassin a try, you most likely will not be disappointed. If you don't own any of those films, get two or three of them and then give Assassin a chance. Its a good slice of action entertainment.
DVD Quality: The World Video DVD makes vast improvements over the vhs (which looked like the print had been stored in puddle of pond scum and had subtitles that were barely readable). However, the transfer is extremely dirty, full of splotches and grain, has an almost ever present line on the left-hand side of the screen, and appears to be slightly matted wrong (too close up).--- The 2.0 mono sound has some background noise on it in spots, but is relatively clear and audible. Default white English and Chinese subs appear on the film itself and cut off during long statements and disappear into the background when white is present onscreen. No extras to speak of other than three chapter stops and a static menu. This is a certainly a case where you buy the DVD based on the merits of the film, not the presentation.