You were a complete and utter surprise. I had never heard of you, yet you were one of Netflix’s inimitable recommendations that looks vaguely interesting. As this fascinating project unfolds from the beginning, there is an undisputable uniqueness to your tone. You are, from the start, definitively Asian in feel. I mean hell just the opening sword action set piece evinced a kind of style and flow that could easily be the crowning jewel for many high quality samurai/ninja/kung fu/anime films I have seen. When you segue from a believable statement about this being the greatest swordsman to have ever lived, to him looking down on the last of the enemy line, a princess toddler in a manger, we find this killing machine is human in there somewhere, as he just picks her up and walks away.
Its not long until we figure out – with toddler in tow – that he has disgraced the family ‘clan’ in refusing to eradicate the enemy line completely by killing this innocent baby. From here, with a price on his head, is where the genre bending commences as he heads to America and the old west in search of an old friend. With Yang walking across the hardpan with toddler dangling on a pole over his shoulder, this becomes a slice of highly original, one of a kind example of Old West, Hong Kong/Chinese, samurai assassin, ninja clan, revenge porn. Only with a whole lot of strange humor mixed in with the most deadpan swordsman to ever grace the screen. If that wasn’t enough he slowly lets us peek at his big ‘ol heart! And it is just as unusually epic as the rest of this uniqueness.
When this master of assassins of the Sad Flute Clan, (cant you just hear the dramatic music,) sets up shop in his old deceased friends laundry, the establishment rests in a sand encrusted desert town, with its own strange rag-tag group of townsfolk still hanging around in the wake of a failed ‘world’s fair of the wild west’ amusement attraction. There are even the requisite jugglers, bearded lady, pint sized MC and town drunk. Of course there is also the spitfire town girl with the heinous past and a red hot desire to learn to kill. She is played by Kate Bosworth and she is wonderful as a character with an arh from annoying and grating to serious and heartfelt.
Actually the casting of the whole thing is completely inspired. From the assassin Yang played by Dong-gun Jang to Bosworth, to the badass Tony Cox as the diminutive 8 Ball. Even the brilliant Danny Houston as the Colonel and Ling Ti as the top Saddest Flute create nasty antagonists as evil and heinous as you are ever likely to see in film. Then of course there is the drunken sharp shooting Geoffrey Rush character Ronald that ends up trading ‘killers’ laments with Yang.
As the middle of the film coasts on some strange but great Western/Carny combination tropes we follow Lynne as she is being trained to kill by Yang, assassin style, with a requisite deeply developing attraction and tension between them. When the Colonel comes to town to make one of his periodic deadly visits and the Saddest Flute leader finds enough evidence to track Yang across the sea, things heat up. As the Colonel avoids Lynne’s first kill attempt, his wrath will be brutal and protracted without doubt. The whole town understands it will have to put its life on the line.
With an almost comic/anime feeling live action finale featuring swords and gattling guns mixed with ninja moves and the carny town feel, its easy to say virgin director Sngmoo Lee comes out of the gate with something special with its own flavor, that’s entertaining as hell in an Eastern meets Western subgenre sort of way. You also get points from me for sticking to a no happy ending realism. When Geoffrey Rush narrates this into the sunset, I can’t help but give a big nod and feel a deep sense of appreciation for this brilliant though strangely evocative film.
We will visit again,