Judgement of an Assassin (1977)
Reviewed by: pjshimmer on 2005-09-28
Summary: Way cool
With all due respect to the previous reviewer, I strongly dispute his negative remarks. This movie is as good as it gets. Although I haven't seen every martial arts movie from the Shaw Brothers, I have seen one hundred or so of them. No doubt many titles have been personal favorites over the years, but Judgement of an Assassin is so superb that it shatters all previous favorites, and is currently the undisputed champion of the Shaw Bros canon for me.

This movie definitely started off with a bang. The first shot is uncomfortably original for a Shaw film. In the first minute, I could already tell this is a work of Sun Chung, a Shaw filmmaker that occasionally carries a distinctive shooting style. His films (e.g. Human Lantern) make great use of the mobile camera to complement the emotional effects, in a way only a master can craft. The camera is dynamic, exciting and unpredictable, never failing to capture my attention. A good example is the shot where Michael Chan is introduced. We are watching a love affair unfold from a distance, not aware of anything unusual. The camera suddenly takes a new path, tracking to the side in the dark; you can't see the lovers any more but you can hear them gently in the background and you are not sure just what the camera will hit, until it reveals a meditating Michael Chan in a blind spot and you realize only the audience now knows he's there all along. What will he do? The effect is both chilling and suspenseful, and the power of mobile filming is illustrated in this wonderful shot.

The main characters are equally charming and fleshed out, exhibiting Ultra cool personalities that are rare in the genre. Although not everyone is good, even some of the eccentric personalities are basically good in their own way, and they deserve respect. I really wish some of the characters would have avoided the fate of death; they are all such interesting people. For once, the dialogues are witty and kind of unpredictable, again a rare quality considering most of Chu Yuan and Chang Cheh's later movies basically contain the identical dreadful, unintelligent, straight-forward lines, for example Chu Yuan's famous exchange: "Who are you? where do you come from?" "I am me, I come from the place where I come from." Come on, give me a break with those lame dialogues. Luckily nothing like that here.

Along the same line, I found the martial arts revolutionary for this time period. It's not really a swordplay film and there are plenty of hand-to-hand as well as weapon combat. For once, the fight scenes make the fighters look convincingly semi-powerful a la the actual wuxia novels. The actress Lau Wai Ling gives the most graceful and classy performance I have ever seen from the Shaw canon. She is truly beautiful yet deadly here.

I do see a few flaws in the plot: first of all, the entire movie revolves around a clan known as the Ten Thousand Poison Clan, which everyone is trying to find out if it is innocent or guilty. It's hard to imagine any respectable martial artist in the movie would have to think twice, knowing the evil clan name! Also it's not clear how the clan can justify doing harm against weaker sects based on "probable cause" (no one objected to their wrongdoing in public), but it certainly parallels some of George Bush's recent shameless acts. There are a few more unclear details.

Unfortunately, the last 20 minutes or so really lost it, and is a major disappointment. It really brings down the overall score, so I think it's best to rememberthe movie without the terrible generic ending.

I don't remember the last time I had this much fun with a wuxia film. Being a life time fanatic of the genre, I think Judgement of an Assassin is no small achievement. It should be highly celebrated.