Vietnamese cinema has generally received limited distribution outside of its home market but times are changing and cinema chains are beginning to see worthwhile returns on locally produced films. And a UK release of The Lady Assassin on DVD is very welcome. It’s a film that derives much of its enjoyment from a love of the best in 1970’s action martial arts films but uses modern cinema techniques, including some CGI, that would not have been available to Shaw Brothers classics. The film stormed the Vietnam box office on release (as it joined other local films in finally beginning to steer from international movies being the only successes), taking VND 35 billion (US$ 1.7 mil), a notable hit.
A tavern run by a group of beautiful women, would seem to be a hospitable place which caters for the desires of its customers, all of whom are male. But the tavern has a secret, for its clients are generally robbers or officials, groups inherently deemed to be reprehensible, and the tavern sisters lure them in as prostitutes but then assassinate them. It provides a convenient means of funding the business as they steal gold obtained from their victims, who have, most likely acquired it in a dubious manner anyhow. The only male who can be assured of any safety is the local goat-herd, but maybe he also has a history of secrets beneath his pleasant peasant exterior. When a band of robbers are wiped out by the group they unearth one of the items hidden in the villains’ chests, a captured girl. The group decide to train her in their ways as she declares that she has a purpose to seek vengeance against a notorious official Quan Du (Thai-Hoa Le) and his army of ninjas, a hatred shared by others in the women’s group. But can she be trusted? Thus begins a tale of games, sex, deception, violence and intrigue where enemies might be friends and vice versa. Hopefully the addition of a variety of nefarious traps surrounding the premises will also prevent unforeseen attacks… or even escapes.
There are a lot of balls on show in The Lady Assassin – from the training exercise game that the girls play together, something akin to Shaolin foot-volleyball, to the way that these balls attached to ropes are used as weapons, as incarceration devices and even clever ways of enhancing difficult housework and cleaning chores. The film is highly reminiscent of Shaw Brothers’ classic action films. Or should that be Shaw Sisters? The tavern shares much of its exploits and scenarios with tea house environments familiar to the genre. A modern version of the training a new member of the clan the hard way recalls the many Shaolin films where a new monk learns new skills and this is also a deeply enjoyable influence.
Engaging and entertaining, The Lady Assassin features plot twists amongst its scenes of martial arts mayhem, comedy, acrobatic games and with a touch of naughtiness that makes you feel that all that is really lacking is a song and dance number. And fortunately they remember to include one. Not art, just plain fun.