Six Assassins Review

The Film

Six Assassins has a story that closely resembles that of Mizoguchi's 47 Ronin. Both films are about the loyal sacrifice of retainers fighting under disguise and with guile to avenge their dethroned and deceased masters. Both films deal with the appropriate response to oppressive rulers and corrupt officials. Still the difference between the movies is blatant, Six Assassins is action packed and filled with obviously evil acts that deserve payback and 47 Ronin is subtle, slow and deliberate with the only action being the denouement. Most noticeable is the facts of fantasy and length, with Six Assassins employing some bouncing wire-fu and being a third of the length of its thematic forefather. This difference in execution of similar themes speaks to the diversity of Asian film and the contrast between the classical Japanese and the populist Hong Kong/Chinese film-makers. This said, it needs to be noted that the director of this film and also the marvellous King Boxer was a Korean brought to Shaw Brothers, who had to learn the modes of another nation's cinema whilst maintaining his own quality which had proved his popularity in his homeland. This blending of an interest in the dramatic and classical with the populist and the national is more easily picked apart in this earlier movie than King Boxer with the classical Japanese story given a somewhat more graphic and fantastic re-telling, but the film is similarly satisfying as both competent film-making and as genre fable.
We find ourselves again in feudal China with the Emperor's evil brother, Li Ming, unilaterally deciding to slaughter peasants in his neighbouring Lord's territory in order to steal land and add to his own principality. After his lackeys have killed the women and children, he is confronted by their Lord who orders him out of his lands. Li Ming is outraged at his cheek and murders him. The emperor's ministers meet to discuss the incident, but instead of trying Li Ming for murder they blame the Lord and decide to annex his lands and exile his innocent family. As a politic measure the minsters agree to delay announcing this decree for a month, and the soon to be exiled clan plan their revenge in the meantime. Revenge proves difficult as Li Ming is an expert swordsman and his guards are plentiful and dedicated too. Many of the assassins die, but a band of five are stopped by Swordsman Mu from joining the ambush. Mu is ordered to execute them but he has a plan of his own to resolve matters and in disguise Mu and his band shadow Li Ming as he visits the capital. Mu's wife is told he has left her for another woman and she also travels to see her brother in the capital. Li Ming is wily and takes advantage of Mu's wife being in the capital to lure him into a trap and revenge or death can not wait much longer.
Six Assassins recalls the styles of other film-makers and traditions as well as trying some experiments. Its bloodiness and cruelty is like Chang Cheh, the bouncing wire-fu is straight out of King Hu, and there are songs which recall earlier Hong Kong musical adventures of the fifties and sixties. This richness of elements leads to a very varied 80 minutes and also to a lack of coherence. As I noted with King Boxer, the director proves innovative in his presentations of the action whilst able to respect the staples of the genre in terms of tricks like jumping into trees or onto roofs coming from backwards projection. Some of the innovations occur in the use of the camera with whiplashes being registered with the camera shaking on impact and some askew camera angles in the darker more troubling moments. Cinematic borrowings and experiments apart, the chief facet of the film is the quality it shows in its excellent lighting, scene setting and composition of the frame. The story is a little over complex and there are holes in the motivations of characters at times but the whole thing ratchets along with such momentum that this matters little. The core of the drama is simple with Li Ming as the foulest of spoilt brats abusing his power, and his assailants are people of honour and character who it is not hard to respect as they suffer terrible torments in their honourable quest. It comes as little surprise when the film wraps the story up but the conclusion is extremely hard fought with fine choreography and a showdown which ends in a very novel ricochet.

Very well crafted if derivative, Six Assassins is an enjoyable flick for swordplay and kung fu hacks like myself. The drama is not as good as in King Boxer and the sum total of all the talent here is beneath the high bar set there. If you are not already in love with the genre then you may find it all a bit overwrought and confusing, and classical film fans may find the borrowing of styles and themes troubling. Still, I think this was yet more evidence of the director's quality and worth seeking out.

The Disc

IVL do it again unfortunately - it is a single layer, poor PAL to NTSC conversion. In terms of the visual quality the conversion problems mean motion-shake and combing, the transfer is one of the sharpest of recent IVL releases but the colour has been boosted a little too far and is excessively vivid at times. Contrast is well done and the original print seems to be spotless. One of the joys of the recent Dragon Dynasty releases has been properly converted transfers and I do hope IVL see the success of those discs and change this policy of not converting their home based releases properly.
The audio is presented in original Mandarin mono which to my ears sounds a little muffled and over-restrained even if dialogue is still audible and clear. The English subtitles are ok but not always easily followed as Li Ming is described in numerous ways and it is not easy to realise that characters mean him as the subs switch between versions of his name. The subs are removable.

The trailers on the disc include another film of the director's, the marvellous looking spy lark, Temptress of a Thousand Faces, along with Chor Yuen's Full Moon Scimitar, Twin Swords and Young Avenger. These are all re-edited trailers for the DVD releases and there are no trailers included for the main feature. The other extras are standard features from IVL with Poster Art, a stills gallery and the very short production notes. The package is topped off with biographies for the four main cast members and the director. All of the extras are provided with English options.


A fine film for swordplay fans or people who liked the director's other work on like King Boxer and Broken Oath. This is a typical IVL release which would be much improved by a better standards conversion, still with little other choice on DVD the disc is very affordable.

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