The Assassins or Bronze Sparrow Tower or Tong que tai (2012)
Let’s spend a moment considering how to unify a kingdom made up of conquered parts. You need a leader with some legitimacy. Everyone therefore swears allegiance and the new unit holds together so long as the leader stays in place. This works well so long as the leader has personal power. His charisma will hold those who might revolt. But if the leader is a puppet? Ah now that creates problems. To some extent, the problems will be controlled if there’s a very strong second-in-command to support the leader. Except there will always be those who plot to replace the “second”. They believe that, as the second’s replacement, they will then manipulate the leader to suit their own ends. Sadly, that always leads to a break up of the kingdom because the central control disappears in the fight to be second.
In The Assassins or Bronze Sparrow Tower or Tong que tai (2012), a Three Kingdoms film, the Han Emperor Xian (Alec Su) is the weak puppet who prefers to sing the songs written by others. Cao Cao (Chow Yun Fat) is the second-in-command, calling himself the King of Wei, and his power holds everything together. He lacks legitimacy to be the Emperor and, to avoid triggering civil war, keeps the Emperor in place. This humiliates the Emperor. He’s constantly shown to be powerless and so periodically issues secret orders to kill Cao Cao. The fact this will cause the loss of his Empire is not something he chooses to recognise. As they move closer to an alignment of the stars predicting dramatic change, several plots come together. The first is arranged by the Fu clan. Fu Wan (Dahong Ni), the patriarch, is a leading Han minister and his daughter is the Empress Fu Shou (Annie Yi). Interestingly, Cao Pi (Xinzhi Qiu) is sleeping with her and has promised to continue her role as Empress if he displaces the Emperor. He therefore knows when the attack will be made on his father and is conveniently present to help defend him. As punishment for failing simply to nip the plot in the bud, Cao Cao instructs his son personally to execute the Empress.
The most complicated plot, however, is being run by Ji Ben (Lu Yao). Culturally, the desire for revenge is considered righteous. The children of those killed are entitled to kill those responsible for their parents’ deaths. Ji Ben collects a small army of such children and ruthlessly trains them as assassins. Among those who emerge into the light are Gong Ling Ju (Yifei Liu) and Mu Shun (Hiroshi Tamaki). They love each other in a platonic way. She’s installed into the Bronze Sparrow Tower as Cao Cao’s mistress and, with appropriate surgery, Mu Shun is entered in the ranks of the eunuchs. It has been ten years since the plot was first set in motion and the time of the star’s alignment draws closer. The winter is particularly harsh with unseasonal blizzards and there have been problems with food supplies. But the Empire is stable and relatively prosperous. The people increasingly support Cao Cao because he gives them peace.
The film is therefore the story of three relationships. Cao Cao loves his son and, for most of the time, trusts him. Cao Cao never trusts the Emperor but strenuously resists any idea of replacing him. For the good of the Empire, the Emperor must stay in place. Cao Cao and Gong Ling Ju are physical lovers, but he recognises her as the daughter of a woman he killed and that she obviously loves another. Chow Yun Fat gives a quietly thoughtful performance that dominates the film. As Cao Cao, he must defend himself without unduly damaging the Emperor’s already tarnished reputation. His son must learn to be less hasty and think more carefully about the implications of his impetuous actions. That leaves Gong Ling Ju. Although it’s not a large part, Yifei Liu’s performance is also impressive. She can see that killing Cao Cao will cause suffering and death for the people in the likely civil war. But her own life will be forfeit if she runs away. Even if Mu Shun comes with her, he’s now unable to give her physical love. They can never recapture the purity of the affection they had as children. This leaves the film to play out as a brooding tragedy. Much blood is spilled and we see considerable brutality in the training of the assassins, and in the lives of those in or near the centre of power. Only those with real power or exceptional ability could survive in such times.
Unlike earlier Three Kingdom films like Red Cliff or Chi Bi (2008) and The Lost Bladesman or Guan Yun Chang (2011), we’re now into Cao Cao’s later years and there are no set-piece battles to give the film an epic quality. Nevertheless, watching the man fight for his own survival both politically and with the sword when physically challenged, we can see both the intelligence of the man and that he has real courage, e.g. accepting the cultural right of Mu Shun to try to take revenge. The tragedy lies in the fact the key players are trapped in situations they did not choose. The assassins were not asked whether they wanted to be trained and deployed. The Emperor did not expect to be put on the throne. Like all other sons, Cao Pi did not ask to be born into a family holding such a powerful position. Yet all must make the best of their situation as Cao Cao decides whether to hold on to life.
The Assassins or Bronze Sparrow Tower or Tong que tai is a dark and tense drama. Towards the end, the usual strictness in the politics of power is relieved by the love of father and son, between the assassins, and of a leader for his mistress. It may not quite be a great film, but it’s certainly very good and worth watching for Chow Yun Fat’s performance.