Debuting soon on Hi-YAH!, Night of the Assassin marks the first directorial outing for Kwak Jeong-deok in 16 years, with his last feature being television movie Temptation of Eve: Good Wife (2007). In between this time he has worked as a writer, with his most notable work being action blockbuster Ashfall (2019).
Originally called just The Assassin, Night of the Assassin is quite a departure from Good Wife. It’s unclear what has taken Jeong-deok so long before stepping behind the camera but he has decided to replace the erotic thrills of his last film with more crowd pleasing swordplay, albeit with mixed results.
Opening with a voice over, we are quickly introduced to Lee Nan (Shin Hyun-joon), Joseon’s number one assassin. Struck down with a deadly illness, Lee Nan has no choice but to hang up his sword as any over exertion could kill him. Like the Gunfighter (1950), it’s not so easy to turn your back on a life of violence, and with news spreading of his illness, a price is quickly put on Lee Nan’s head. After an unsuccessful assassination attempt against him, Lee Nan goes into hiding.
Fast forward a year and Lee Nan is a shadow of his former self, with many he comes into contact with believing him to be a wandering vagrant. With this he comes into contact with Seon-hong (Kim Min-kyung) who he saves from being raped. He does this more with wordplay than any martial arts skills, which helps keep his true identity secret. Feeling sorry for him, Seon-hong allows him to stay with her and her son at the local inn she runs.
For a while Lee Nan is able to live in peace but it doesn’t last, with his real identity being exposed when he is forced to deal with a couple of bandits who show up at Seon-hong’s Inn looking for trouble. His swift dealing of these bandits brings him to the attention of Lee Bang (Lee Moon-sik), a seemingly lowly politician who secretly is behind all criminal activities in the region.
Initially Lee Bang tries to coerce Lee Nan into doing his bidding, with the promise of a cure for his illness. It isn’t a surprise that he means to double-cross the famed assassin once he has carried out his work, although he may have bitten off more than he can chew with his double cross bringing about the “Night of the Assassin”.
The first thing that becomes apparent in Night of the Assassin is that it’s clearly a low budget affair. Partly to do with being shot digitally, the majority of the film has the look of a television movie, with the lighting or lack of being extremely noticeable. While the costumes and sets are suitably traditional, they all look a tad too clean for my liking. The world doesn’t seem lived in, with proceedings seeming to lack the necessary dust and dirt that gives a film of this ilk some character.
The low budget additionally affects the sound quality of the film, with dialogue and sound effects feeling hollow, with there being almost no weight to them. This isn’t entirely in evidence through the film but there are definitely parts of the movie that haven’t been given the same care.
This would be forgivable if the action made up for it, but unfortunately even this area manages to be a let down. It’s not that the action is terrible, but it certainly pales in comparison to many similar swordplay to have come out of South Korea. The action does it’s job to move the plot forward, but considering the film builds to the titular “Night of the Assassin”, when that set piece finally comes the choreography is mostly made up of basic moves with the obligatory use of fake CGI blood.
Even when the film introduces characters that appear to be included to put Lee Nan through his paces, when they finally face off their fight scenes are relatively brief and don’t generate the excitement anticipated from their encounter.
Admittedly, Jeong-deok does inject the film with some interesting characters and the plot does take some dark turns on its way to the finale. He additionally includes some supernatural touches into the story which seem to jar with the overall plot due to how late in the day they are introduced. One character appears to have the ability to control minds, with no real explanation of how.
Included with this is the mysterious villain controlling everything behind the scenes who is only portrayed through a set of demonic eyes looking out of a darkened room. As strange as this may seem, it at least adds something a bit different than the norm.
Another factor in the film’s favor is the cast. It was great to see Shin Hyun-joon back in sword fighting mode, as one of the first films I ever saw him in was director Kim Young-jun’s Bichunmoo (2000). That film was very much inspired by Chinese Wuxia movies, even down to the fact that it was shot in China and featured action choreography from Hong Kong based action director Ma Yuk-sing, who ironically hails from South Korea.
Hyun-joon would reteam with Young-jun and Yuk-sing some time later on Shadowless Sword (2005), another Wuxia inspired actioner. Perhaps it was due to the quality of those films that I was expecting more, although Hyun-joon hasn’t changed much since his Bichunmoo days, with the character he plays here looking very similar. Of course he is now over 20 years older, so expecting the same level of action from him would be ridiculous (although not impossible as the likes of Keanu Reeves, Tom Cruise, etc. have proved).
Hyun-joon is suitably stoic but impacts his character with some genuine heart as well as a bit of humor during the film’s brisk 100 minute run time. He shows this best during his scenes with Kim Min-kyung’s Seon-hong and her son played by Lee Ro-woon, where their simple existence begins to give him a sense of peace. Of course we know it won’t last, with Hyun-joon reverting back to the killer he once was. Even with a low budget film like this, Hyun-joon never phones it in, with his appearance alone raising the film above its low budget origins, even if his appearance also heightens expectations on the film’s overall quality.
Lee Moon-sik is memorable as the main villain, a corrupt politician working behind the scenes, allowing his supposed superiors to believe he is merely an underling, much to their downfall. Although he poses no physical threat to our hero, he is surrounded by those who do, with an army of criminals and swordsmen at his disposal. At the front of these is a young swordsman played by Hong Eunki, who we are led to believe will be as deadly as our hero but ultimately comes across more of a poser, looking more like a male model than a cold blooded killer.
It’s a shame Night of the Assassin is less the sum of its parts, as it’s great to see Shin-Hyun-joon back in a swordplay drama. If only some of the other elements of the film could have lived up to their potential we could have been on to a real winner.
Night of the Assassin is definitely worth a watch, as it goes by fairly quickly and still has enough action to keep undemanding fans happy. Currently streaming on Hi-YAH!, a physical release will be coming from Well Go USA in August for the serious collector.
Plot: 2.5/5 Acting: 3.5/5 Action: 2/5 Overall: 2.6/5