A new Daniel Lee film is always a fun surprise. He isn't the most consistent of directors (certainly not because of the whole Hong Kong/China exodus we've gone through this past decade) and his oeuvre has quite a few disappointments, but there's always a chance of him hitting it big. When I heard Song of the Assassins [Qing Mian Xiuluo] was supposed to be a steam punk-adjacent martial arts epic, I got tentatively excited, and it seems my gut feeling didn't let me down. This is the type of film I love to see from Lee, and which has been sorely missed these past few years.
Lee has a knack for reviving comatose martial arts niches. He brought back the 90s glory with 14 Blades and did the same for the tactical martial arts epic when he released White Vengeance. For a while now China has been struggling to bring back its former martial arts flair (apart from the stray Zhang Yimou film maybe), with Song of the Assassins Lee pulls off his old magic trick once again. It's nothing unique nor revolutionary, but it's a well-executed genre flick that hits all the right notes, making it clear that this isn't just some lucky coincidence.
Song of the Assassins combines classic Chinese fantasy elements with steampunk-like influences. There have been a few of these before (Tai Chi Zero most notably), but it isn't the most vibrant niche. They do combine rather well though, as the more traditional Chinese fantasy is enriched with something equally bombastic, only semi-contemporary. With so many familiar and samey martial arts films out there, anything that can set a film apart, no matter how small, is worth championing. It's definitely a path worth exploring a bit more.
A map carved in gold falls into the wrong hands. It betrays the location of a sizeable treasure and whoever gets his hands on the treasure could upset the political balance in the region. And so, the map has to be retrieved as quickly as possible. A trained assassin is sent out to retrieve the map and make a deal with its possessor, but he quickly discovers that he is only playing a small part in a bigger setup. He can't trust the people he travels with, nor the people who sent him on his mission, and as he gets closer to his goal he realizes that he can only trust himself.
The cinematography plays a huge part in the appeal of films like these, and Song of the Assassins doesn't disappoint. The reliance on CG is quite heavy, but contrary to many of its peers, the execution is solid and combines well with the traditional camera work and set designs. The weapons and costumes look slick, the interior designs are superb, the color and lighting are exemplary and the camera work is extremely dynamic. It's exactly what I want from a big-budget martial arts epic and Lee understands the value of a strong visual identity, certainly when doing these big epics.
The soundtrack isn't quite on the same level, but that's a given for Chinese blockbusters. It's not a bad score, though it does get a little cheesy in places. The music is mostly there to give quick auditory cues about the sentiment of a particular scene. It underlines the drama and the action quite well, but it does so with very little refinement and without a clear identity. I wouldn't call it stock music quite yet, but it comes dangerously close sometimes. Not the biggest problem for a film like Song of the Assassins, but there's clearly some room for improvement.
The performances are better, but there are no real standouts either. William Feng is pretty junior and lacks the charisma to carry a film like this, Jun Hu is slightly more memorable, though he could've used some scenes that made a bigger impact. Of course, the actors aren't the most important assets of Song of Assassins, it's all about how badass the action looks on screen. A slightly more alluring villain or a more charismatic lead could have helped the film to stand out a tad more, but the cast isn't too bad or distracting, which is sufficient.
Daniel Lee doesn't reinvent the wheel here. In between the action, he adds a little intrigue and some plot twists, but that's just fluff to bridge the time to the next fight. That means the film can get a little dense with exposition, certainly toward the ending when everything needs to be wrapped up, but the plot is proper and it kept me interested until the very end. Some might be annoyed by the denseness and the sudden switches in pacing, I can't say it bothered me that much, as I dug the action and the styling, and you need some kind of filler to pad a blockbuster film like this.
I miss the days when Hong Kong and China put out a high-quality martial arts epic on a monthly basis. Recent attempts to revive the niche have failed invariably, so it's nice to see there are still directors around who know how to pull this off successfully. The styling is lush, the action scenes are dynamic and well over-the-top, the CG doesn't distract and there's enough intrigue for those who want something besides the action. Song of the Assassins is a film I've been craving for quite a while, and I'm not at all surprised Daniel Lee is the one to come through and deliver it.