Friday, April 26, 2024


This is part of a series I started when working on Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate, reviewing wuxia films and discussing their relevance to tabletop RPGs. I am a little rusty on these written reviews and my last one was a little long winded, so I am going to aim for brevity on this one. 

If you want to bring wuxia to your RPG table, try Righteous Blood Ruthless Blades or Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate. 

Note: I am writing these as a fan of the genre. I am not a movie expert or an expert in asian cinema. These are my own observations based on what I have learned by watching wuxia and kung fu movies, and by reading about them through interviews and books. But my knowledge is quite limited and I am an English speaker. So understand that my commentary comes from this perspective.  

This review contains many spoilers.

Reign of Assassins is a 2010 film directed by Su Chao-pin and co-directed by John Woo. It stars Michelle Yeoh, Wang Xueqi, Barbie Shu, Jung Woo-sung, Shawn Yue, Leon Dai and Kelly Lin. This review contains some minor spoilers, but the major plot turns are avoided.  

There may not be a movie that engages me as perfectly as Reign of Assassins. It is filled with spectacular action, colorful martial heroes and twisted villains, touches on interesting spiritual themes and has a moving love story. The film operates on a number of different levels, while capturing all the things I love about wuxia. 

It centers around turmoil in the martial world that arises from a highly coveted artifact, the mummified remains of Bodhidharma. His body supposedly contains the secrets of his incredible martial arts, and the one who wields it can control the martial world. Beyond that, it has the power to heal, to regrow organs, to make the blind see and to bring life to dead limbs.

In this chaos is Dark Stone, an order of assassins led by a man named the Wheel King. He has three chief followers: Drizzle, Lei Bin, and The Magician. Knowing that half of the Bodhi's body is with Prime Minister Zhang, they attack his residence, killing him and his son, but Drizzle betrays the group by absconding with the body. On her way off, the nearly dead son of Prime Minister Zhang, Renfeng obstructs Drizzle's escape on a bridge but she stabs him one the heart-side of his chest and drops him into the river. 

At this moment, Drizzle encounters a monk named Wisdom and spends three months with him. He provokes her anger towards the end of their time together and they fight, during which he reveals key weaknesses in her water shedding sword style. In his final demonstration, she kills him, seemingly by accident and seemingly intentional on his part. 

This is where the movie really starts to crystalize for me. Drizzle seeks to escape the martial world and finds a doctor who can change her features, and then seeks quiet retirement. 

Dark Stone identifies a replacement for Drizzle in Turquoise Ye, a woman sentenced to death for murdering her fiancé and his family on the night of her wedding. Compared to Drizzle she is far more deranged. To call Turquoise psycho doesn't do her madness justice. She slips into Drizzle's role in the group well, becoming close with Wheel King, the group's leader, and harboring jealous resentment towards her predecessor. 

Living a peaceful life, Drizzle, now calling herself Zeng Jing, marries a courier named Ah-sheng but as one might expect their domestic joy is interrupted when Dark Stone Gang tracks her down. Wheel King tells her he will let her leave Dark Stone if she gives them the Bodhidarma and helps them steal the other half of the body (believed to be in the hands of a crippled official who wants it so he can walk again). 

From here it is difficult to describe the plot in detail without spoiling major elements of the story, but it reaches a satisfying conclusion, and along the way, there are great fight sequences and major surprises. The movie flows quite well from the opening exposition that sets the scene, the love story at the center and heist and battle for the mummified remains leading up to a final showdown with the leader of Dark Stone. 

There are so many things I like about Reign of Assassins. On my most recent viewing, one aspect that stood out was how well all the pieces are laid down in the story. With each revelation and twist, I felt I could look back at something one of the characters did or an ambiguous expression and feel like the film was shot in a highly consistent way. This matters in any movie but here it is paramount, as everything hinges on the character and their motivations. 

Perhaps what I like most is how emotionally satisfying the film is. It is moving and cathartic. But it is also balanced. Even though it has a romantic core, this is a very dark movie, with characters contending with one another in a merciless jianghu. The love story holds it together, but the love story itself is more about the spiritual progress of the characters. It is a well woven storyline, where the romantic heart of the movie is threaded through all the other elements. 

Reign of Assassins also works on a variety of levels. It can be enjoyed as a straight forward action film set in a  glorious martial world. But the spiritual themes and metaphors are obvious. This isn't a movie that makes its symbols difficult to decipher or discern, but you can find greater richness in them with each viewing. So it is a deep movie but not a pretentious one. 

And it does a good job of making one wonder how figurative or literal it is being. An example that leaps to mind is the final showdown with Wheel King. He is presented as the embodiment of the king of the tenth court of hell, determining the person's next rebirth. As he approaches Drizzle in a cemetery for their confrontation we hear him say "The 10th Yama Palace. The Wheel King lives alone in the 10th Yama Palace putting souls on trial and determining their life spans, diving the rich and poor and sending out souls for reincarnation." This is an amazing way to start a duel that has built from the beginning of the movie, it just fills the screen with drama. But it also makes the viewer wonder what is genuinely going on here. You begin to consider this might be the 10th court of Diyu. And there are more scenes with this kind of feel to them. 

Ultimately though it is a movie about rebirth, about Buddhist morality and people trying to find new lives after living ones of evil. They all want to escape, even their leader wants to escape. But every character makes sense, every character has something redeeming or understandable. Wheel King, who is the central villain of the film, his motives make sense as well. Again I don't want to spoil the story, the reasons why he wants the remains of Bodhidharma, are reasonable. 

The fights work great, and I think in particular the range of weaponry is quite nice. And each character is distinct so it is very easy to know who is who in any given battle (even people who show up for one minute to be impaled the next, you get a clear sense of their personality). The movie isn't one fight after the next, but there is no shortage of them. They are also very well spaced throughout the movie and there is usually a lot more to them than just trading blows. One thing that stands out is how well the movie leads into the swordplay. In one dramatic moment, a character patiently sharpens his blade on a whetstone and talks with the killers before attacking them. The martial heroes in this movie all face death and bloodshed with a stylistic edge.   

And I love the characters in Reign of Assassins. Each of the main figures in the film Drizzle, Ah-sheng, Wheel King, Lei Bin, Turquoise Ye and the Magician, they all bring interesting things to the table. They each stand out and have clear motivations. They're all eccentric in their own way, they are all part of the martial world, but stand apart from it. 

The performances are also very good here. Michelle Yeoh is great as Drizzle. I think her acting is one of the things that elevates the movie and makes so many of those crucial scenes have the emotional weight they need. Wang Xueqi plays wheel king perfectly. He is creepy and dangerous but there is real emotion in the character, and he is terrifying when he needs to be. Barbie Shu plays an incredible psycho, but even her character, crazed as she is, is driven by personality traits and motives that feel real. One of the more fun characters is the movie is The Magician played by Leon Dai. He brings real flair to some of the martial arts sequences by incorporating magic into his kung fu. And Lei Bin, played by Shawn Yue, has an obsession with noodles, and making the perfect noodles, that is infectious. And there are plenty of other characters on the fringes of the story too. In the end it creates a strong sense of a martial world that is lived in. 

Also the individual details of the world are great. There is an incredible bank robbery scene and they do a wonderful job of breathing life into an institution that the characters inhabit. Even the ground level stuff surrounding Drizzles attempt at domestic life creates a sense of place. 


Reign of Assassins is perfect fodder if you are looking for a heist style adventure or if you want an adventure centered around a contested object in the martial world. I drew heavily on the movie for an extended adventure in my Sons of Lady 87 campaigns. In this case, I liked the idea of the mummified remains, but went more supernatural and had them be the remaining flesh of Sun Mai after he had become an immortal. The mummy was like the petrified outer shell of the man that retained his memories but also all of his negative qualities. The adventure is called King of the Pure Ones and I provide notes on it in the Sons of Lady 87 Campaign Book, beginning on page 161. 

The other key idea I love from this movie that works at the table is having a sect leader teach his students martial arts with gaps so that he can easily defeat them if they ever turn against him. Mechanically this could be done a number of ways depending on the system. In Ogre Gate or RBRB, I think the best way is a counter that is specific to the style or kung fu technique. That way they may have a technique that is very good on its own, but becomes dangerous when used against a person who knows the counter. The other approach is to simply have literal gaps (i.e. they only know 4 out of 8 of the techniques). 

In terms of providing broad inspiration, Reign of Assassins provides a clear blueprint for filling your martial world with characters. And Dark Stone can serve as a good model for an organization, with the named members in the group all being clearly described. It is an approach I often take in my own campaigns, where the upper members of the sect are individually stated out, while the henchmen are grouped into single stat blocks. It also shows how dynamic an organization is. When Drizzle steals the body and leaves Dark Stone, they recruit her replacement. The person who takes her place has a personality of her own that changes the overall character of the group. 

Reign of Assassins is one of my most enthusiastic recommendations in the genre and something I especially suggest for anyone thinking of running a wuxia campaign. But it is also just a good film. Definitely check this one out if he haven't seen it before. 

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