ASSASSINS IN ASIANS FILMS:
Contrasting Portrayal in Hollywood Films
by Felix Cheong
When is an assassin a folk hero and when is he a brooding, menacing killer? Well, it depends on whether youre a fan of wuxia pian (Chinese martial arts films) or Hollywood blockbusters. It depends on whose viewfinder you have chosen to peer into to frame up his image.
Strictly speaking, an assassin is someone who kills for a political reason, not just a killer parked on someones payroll. The origin of the word could be traced to the 11th century, during the turmoil of the Holy Crusades. Members of a Muslim sect hiding out in the mountains of Lebanon were known to murder their enemies as part of their religious duty. These killers, apparently under the influence of the drug hashish, were called hashshashin, meaning "eaters or smokers of hashish." The word subsequently wound its way through the ages until its derivative, "assassin," found a home in the English language.
In effect, the assassin is really first cousin to the terrorist, both bound by a pact to spill blood for their beliefs. The difference lies in the scale of their ambition. While the terrorist aims for nothing less than a massive hemorrhaging of lives, the assassin trains his sight squarely on one target.
In the fictional universe of jianghu (the pugilistic world, a metaphor for ancient China), the assassin is very much lionized as a man who can make a difference in the compass of his country, the eye of its history. Like the Arthurian legend of the knight-errant, he is often portrayed as a wandering swordsman who, unfettered by family, fame and fortune, lives by and upholds the code of yi, or righteousness. In a time of corrupt regimes and warring tribes, the common man sees no way out of his quiet desperation but to turn to this swordsman who, by sheer strength and skill, is morally obliged to right wrongs.
This is the premise behind Chen Kaiges lush epic The Emperor and the Assassin (1999). Like Zhang Yimous latest offering Hero, Chens film is about an assassination attempt on Ying Zheng, the Qi ruler hell bent on uniting China by force. The assassin in question is Jing Ke, a retired, reformed killer loath to assume the mantle. But its this very reluctance that gives him the moral authority to act, that grants him the status of a Shakespearean tragic hero.
In the West, however, the figure of the assassin has never quite enjoyed the same aura and attention. If anything, hes treated with disdain, even derision. This is partly due to the fact that democracy and the rule of law have long been enshrined and entrenched as a way of life. To take matters into your own hands is to undermine these high-minded ideals, for theres always the courtroom and the ballot box to address and redress wrongs.
This is especially the case in the US, a country that has witnessed four presidents killed in office: Abraham Lincoln (1865), James Garfield (1881), William McKinley (1901) and John F. Kennedy (1963). The 1981 assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan, by a nutcase called John Hinckley (who confessed he simply wanted to impress actress Jodie Foster), further undercuts the cult of the assassin.
This deep suspicion is reflected in the way Hollywood has chosen to depict the assassin: by focusing only on his propensity for premeditated violence. For when you have stripped such a character of his subversive politics, you can tidy him up and sell him as an action hero, a lone wolf, a hired gun with all the crease-lines and conflict associated with killing for a living. You simplify him as a type so that you dont have to acknowledge the messiness of his cause.
With the exception of The Day of the Jackal (1973) and An Interview with the Assassin (2002), this is precisely how Hollywood has played the assassin card the past 25 years.
Therere the hormone-driven, action thrillers like Assassins (1995) and The Replacement Killers (1998) in which the assassin is merely a foot solider to chalk up body count and move the plot from one explosion to another. Therere the black comedies like Prizzis Honor (1985) and Grosse Pointe Blank (1997) in which the incongruity of an assassin trying to lead a normal existence is played for laughs.
And interestingly, on the heels of French director Luc Bessons stylish art-house film La Femme Nikita (1991), therere also the soft porn flicks. What began with one Hollywood remake, the dreary Point of No Return (1993), has turned into a torrent of low-budget copycats high on camp and low on production values.
Its easy to see why the formula is so lucrative. Because the protagonist is a female assassin with no qualms about turning a trick to achieve her end, the flesh trade can easily recycle the story, offering sex and violence in the breath of the same reel. Thus, the appearance of a sub-genre since the early 1990s, boasting such cheesy titles as Naked Killer (1992), Zero Woman (2000) and Naked Weapon (2002).
We may never understand the psychological makeup of an assassin nor what it takes to be one. But how hes seen, on celluloid, offers an intriguing point of reference for contrasting ideologies, between an Asian and Western take on heroism.
This article was first published in Today on 28th January 2003.