“Assassinate for peace” runs a series of characters along a wall in the secret den of a shady society known as Ghost Valley in Daniel Lee’s fantasy wuxia, Code of the Assassins (青面修罗, qīng miàn xiūluó). It may seem somewhat paradoxical, but the Ghost Valley philosophy is that they can one day help the world turn away from vengeance and hatred towards a more settled humanity by carrying out assassinations in “an age in which assassins are used to solve problems”.
Yet everyone in Ghost Valley is out for revenge, not least the hero Junyuan (Feng Shaofeng) whose entire clan was wiped out after a mysterious man asked his dad to carve a copper treasure map. The map and its hidden riches continue to destabilise the political equilibrium in a series of neighbouring clans with ambitious retainer Prince Rui approaching Ghost Valley to get him the map and bump off his rival, head of the Imperial Guard Zhao (Hu Jun), in the process. Golden Mask, the mysterious leader of Ghost Valley tells Junyuan’s mentor Grim Ghost to keep him out of it, but Junyuan obviously doesn’t listen because learning the truth behind the map and his parents’ death is his life’s mission.
That’s how he gets himself mixed up in intrigue, framed as a traitor to Ghost Valley and hunted by a series of enforcers while falling for enigmatic female assassin Shengsheng (Gina Jin Chen). Dualities seem to abound in the ironic juxtaposition of peace and assassination along with that of vengeance and righteousness in the ongoing battle against hate and darkness. Junyuan vows he will walk out of Ghost Valley once his vengeance has been achieved, but has to ask himself if his time there has changed him and if he can ever leave this shady world of mercenary violence. Golden Mask explains to him that you can’t change anything with a weapon but a plot can change an era, while Lady Hua, who has become a Buddhist, adds that assassinations don’t change anything either.
Yet the plotters’ revolution fails in part because they have changed since they set their plot in motion and are no longer the right people for the right time. Junyuan grows suspicious of his masked society, certain that mask on or off he is the same Junyuan but now mistrustful of the effects the mask can have on others along with the power they confer. Power can make one hunger for more, contravening the laws of Ghost Valley to embrace greed in taking vengeance against a world that denies them what they want. Then again, hegemony may also in its way bring about “peace” at least for a time.
The eerie austerity of the snowbound Ghost Valley hideout echoes its emotional coldness in the sacrifices that have been made in the pursuit of plotting, romantic not least among them in the melancholy of Lady Hua filled with past regrets and a longing for lost love knowing that the long years of waiting have corrupted the innocent romance of her youth. Junyuan continues to grow closer to Shengsheng though suspicious of her dualistic qualities as top assassin and damsel in distress while himself unwilling to pursue romance in this continually uncertain world.
Despite his claims to use no weapons, Golden Mask, like Junyuan who has a steampunk prosthetic arm, hides angel wings beneath his armour, while sometime enemy Black Judge has an umbrella that fires nails from its spokes. Lee conjures an anachronistic world of industrialised fantasy echoed in the factory-like design of Ghost Valley and the secret underground mailroom beneath the palace where the authoritarian lord has been secretly reading the private correspondence of his men including Zhao’s frequent letters to his wife which he then uses against him as a veiled threat. Lee introduces the Ghost Valley assassins with their own intro video showcasing their weaponry and techniques along with their mask and lends a touch of wizardry to impressive large scale action sequences with the quasi-magical quality of the equipment and its intricate metalworking. The video game aesthetic and heavy metal end credits also lend a cool if perhaps now retro sensibility injecting a punk spirit in direct contrast to the genre’s usual classicism as Junyuan commits the ultimate act of rebellion in maintaining his integrity in a world of masked intrigue.
Code of the Assassins is available to stream in the US via Hi-YAH! and released on Digital, blu-ray, and DVD courtesy of Well Go USA on March 28.
US release trailer (Mandarin with English subtitles)