Writer’s Potential: 5
After giving up her life as an assassin, a woman falls in love with a man and tries hard to keep him from finding out about her past.
Opening titles explain the backstory: 800 years ago, the revered Buddhist monk Bodhidharma became one of the most renowned martial artists in history. Hundreds of years after he died, rumors circulated that anyone who possessed Bodhi’s remains would be able to achieve his mastery of martial arts. At one point, the remains were divided into halves and separated. When the Black Stone—the largest organization of assassins in the martial arts world—discovered the location of one of these halves, three assassins were dispatched to recover it. The three assassins are LEI BIN, whose weapon of choice are tiny steel needle projectiles; LIAN SHENG, a magician with command over fire; and DRIZZLE, a powerful swordswoman. They attack ZHANG HAIDUN, who has half of the Bodhi’s remains, but Haidun’s son, RENFENG, comes after them with a pair of swords. Drizzle kills him easily, plunging a sword through his chest and allowing him to fall into a river. A mysterious monk appears, asking Drizzle for the remains. She runs off with them.
Three months later, a group of assassins meet in a tavern, including KILLER BEAR and his sister, EATER BEAR; an OLD GRANNY and a YOUNG BOY; SHAN BING, an ex-police chief; TIAN QINGTONG, a girl disguised as a boy; and the SONGYANG FIVE SWORDSMEN (five brothers). CHEN, a fat merchant who fancies himself a martial artist, announces that whoever brings the head of Drizzle to his bank will be rewarded by the blackstone with 50,000 gold taels and the 800,000 silver taels Drizzle allegedly carries with her. Chen shows them Drizzle’s last known location and where they presume she’ll be in a couple of days. He offers them all copies of Drizzle’s portrait. The Songyang Five strike out on their own, but the remaining assassins all gather in a farmhouse for the night. They discuss their various reasons for wanting the money. In a wild action sequence, Drizzle kills every one of the assassins, except Qingtong, who sneaks up on Drizzle as she leaves. She stabs Drizzle in the shoulder, announcing she’s avenging the death of her father. A clearly regretful Drizzle willingly allows Qingtong to kill her, but Qingtong can’t.
Drizzle rows a small boat to the larger boat of DR. LI, a medicine man who helps Drizzle recover from her shoulder wound. In addition, he uses strange, old-fashioned techniques to allow Drizzle to change her face. Once she’s recovered from the change, Drizzle moves to Nanjing and rents a house, introducing herself as ZENG JING, a poor girl with no family or husband. Zeng flashes on a pre-“facelift” meeting with a monk known as WISDOM, her former trainer. He’s been following her in order to recover Bodhi’s remains. Ultimately, Drizzle kills Wisdom. With his dying breath, he asks her to take the remains to another monk, OBSESSION, at a temple in Nanjing. In the present, Zeng introduces herself to Obsession and hands over the remains. He invites her to come to the temple any time she’s in spiritual doubt. Trying to figure out what to do with her time, Zeng catches a shop owner chopping vegetables like crazy. Intrigued by the knifeplay, Zeng asks the owner to teach her how to cook. Meanwhile, Chen meets with Lian Sheng, Lei Bin, and WHEEL KING, their master. He’s hellbent on finding Drizzle in order to recover the “other” half of the remains, but nobody knows what happened to her. Chen proudly announces that they’ve found a substitute for drizzle—TURQUOISE YE, an early-20s sociopath who’s sentenced to death for murdering three men who wanted to marry her. Hidden in the shadows on the ceiling of her cell, Lei Bin drops some tortoise powder in the wine at Turquoise’s last meal. She immediately seems to die. Her body is hauled to a graveyard, where the Black Stoners wait for her to awaken. She’s angry about the tortoise powder, but Wheel King isn’t interested in her sass. He gives her an ultimatum: join them, or die again.
Nine months later, JIANG AHSHENG takes a job as a Nanjing courier. In the marketplace where Zeng now sells fabric, Zeng pays no attention to the attractive young courier. This surprises her landlady, MRS. CAI, who can’t figure out why Zeng is so disinterested in single men. One afternoon, it starts raining. Zeng and Jiang find themselves in the same teahouse to wait it out. Jiang offers to buy her a cup of tea, but Zeng dashes out the instant the rain stops. While Mrs. Cai marvels at Zeng’s cooking ability, Wheel King teaches Turquoise the secrets of martial arts—by practicing on the judge who sentenced her to death. Jiang is offered a job as a government courier. Lei Bin comes home one night, revealing he’s now married to Qingtong, who holds a newborn baby. Jiang frequently drops by the marketplace whenever it rains in the hopes that he can help and stand near Zeng. The Black Stoners continue to train Turquoise. After four months, Zeng finally invites Jiang to marry him. He’s a little shocked by the breach in etiquette, but he’s amused because he said he had already submitted an egagement request to Mrs. Cai. They marry, and Jiang finally accepts the higher-paying government job. He doesn’t realize that he’s shuffling letters around the city to various Black Stoners plotting assassinations and discussing the strange murders of other Black Stoners, which they think may have something to do with Drizzle despite not matching her attack style.
One night, Zeng and Jiang go over their finances. Jiang is disillusioned to learn Zeng makes more money at the marketplace than he does as a courier. Zeng uneasily broaches the subject of what Jiang would do if he had 800,000 silver taels. Jiang can’t even imagine, but he’s tired of struggling to make ends meet. A few days later, Zeng carefully mentions a relative died and left her some money. Jiang’s thrilled. Zeng’s about to tell him the truth about her past, but she settles on telling him he left 800 silver taels. She tells him she wants to use the money to move north and buy land to start their own business. Jiang’s surprised by the suddenness and seriousness of her request. He says he’ll speak with his supervisor about it. Zeng goes to the temple to bid Obsession farewell. Excited to leave the city, Zeng meets Jiang at the bank to deposit their windfall—when it’s robbed by the Songyang Five Swordsmen! They believe the other half of Bodhi is in this bank’s vault. Zeng tries to hide her swordfighting skills, but when Jiang is threatened, she can’t help herself. She attacks and kills all but the eldest of the brothers. She takes Jiang’s injured body and flees on the rooftops. That night, Zeng can’t figure out why Jiang doesn’t want to discuss what happened. Jiang finally exclaims that he feels useless—he makes less money than Zeng, and he can’t protect her. Zeng tries to make him feel secure.
The Songyang Eldest reports to the Black Stoners about what he saw at the bank. Wheel King realizes the woman he fought was none other than Drizzle. He sends Turquoise, Lei Bin, and Lian Sheng to Nanjing. They search the city, murdering anyone who gets in their way, until Lei Bin finds Zeng at the marketplace. He kills Mrs. Cai with one of his steel needles, then chases Zeng through the rooftops. Meanwhile, Turquoise encounters Jiang at the teahouse. To show her power, she raises her sword and brings it down hard, only cutting a tiny snag in Jiang’s shirt—Jiang doesn’t even notice her, but Zeng sees her from outside. Zeng barely manages to flee Lei Bin. Once she returns home, she refuses to expose herself with bright oil lamps; instead, she works by candle. That night, Turquoise, Lei Bin, and Lian Sheng break into the house. Before they can kill her, Wheel King arrives, demanding the location of the remains. Zeng offers a trade: she’ll give him her half of the remains and help them recover the other half if he allows Zeng and Jiang to live in peace. Wheel King agrees, to the consternation of the others. That night, Turquoise demands to know what’s so special about the Bodhi’s remains. Wheel King refuses to tell her, so she attempts to seduce her. He sends her away.
While Zeng, Lei Bin, and Lian Sheng break into the bank with a few other assassins, Turquoise sneaks into Jiang’s house. Jiang is shocked. He starts yelling for the neighbors. Turquoise flees before anyone can see her. At the bank, Zeng and the others negotiate a price with the bank owner for the second half of the remains. They put the two halves together—and the full remains are stolen by a Taoist monk assassin. Lian Sheng chases the monk, decapitating her in order to retrieve the satchel with the remains. Wheel King arrives, demanding the remains. Lian Sheng wants them for himself, thinking they can heal his old injuries. Wheel King decapitates Lian Sheng, then turns his attention to Zeng. She reminds him that she did everything they agreed on, but Wheel King has wanted to fight her for years—he knows her weaknesses. They fight briefly, but Zeng manages to get away. She returns to Jiang, covered in blood. He puts her to bed. Turquoise and Lei Bin storm the house, attacking Jiang. Jiang shocks them by being quite a skilled swordsman himself. He pulls out a pair of swords, which makes Lei Bin realize he is Zhang Renfeng.
Wheel King examines Bodhi’s remains. Knowing Bodhi was castrated, Wheel King wants some sign that his power allowed his naughty bits to grow back. Wheel King reveals to Turquoise that he, himself, is a eunuch, and all along he’s wanted to recover the parts so he could restore his full manhood. After challenging Wheel King, Jiang takes Zeng to Dr. Li to help her heal. Jiang goes to the temple and finds out Zeng is Drizzle. He’s horrified and enraged. Zeng meets him outside the temple, and he admits he’s Renfeng, and that he swore to avenge his father’s death by killing her. As they battle, he explains that he survived as the result of a rare genetic deformity that inverted the arrangement of his organs—meaning she never stabbed his heart. After Dr. Li helped him recuperate and he started a new life with a new name, Jiang felt himself drawn to Zeng for unknown reasons. Now, he knows why, and he’s less offended by “killing” him than his father. Zeng tells Jiang that the fact that he hasn’t killed her already shows he has some feeling for her. Jiang drops his guard, and Zeng stabs him in the chest again.
When Turquoise insults Wheel King’s manhood, he knocks her unconscious and buries her outside the temple. He finds Zeng standing in front of a grave with Jiang’s body. He’s surprised that she killed Jiang but pleased because it makes things easier for him. Zeng and Wheel King battle. Wheel King is confident he knows her weaknesses and can kill her, but he’s wrong—after weakening him with a variety of wounds, she strikes the deathblow. However, Zeng is quite injured herself. She collapses next to Jiang’s body, flashing on her battle with Jiang. She has intentionally stabbed his acupoints to keep him from moving. She gives him tortoise powder to make him appear dead. She’s certain she will die, so she gives Jiang more than enough to start a new life outside Nanjing. Zeng is willing to die, because she killed the only two men in her life—one (the monk Wisdom) by her own hand, the other by destroying his family.
In the present, Jiang awakens. Because the tortoise powder kept him conscious but immobile, he knows exactly why Zeng did what she did, and he realizes they both truly have fallen in love with each other. As they leave, rain turns the fresh graves to mud. Turquoise’s fingers claw through her gravesite. After the credits, Turquoise—whose face and dress has changed completely, not unlike Zeng’s—arrives at an elderly woman’s house, inquiring about a house for rent.
Jianyu Jianghu is a fantastical martial-arts action story with a winning premise. However, the poorly developed characters and predictable storyline overshadows the script’s occasional novel ideas. As written, it merits a pass.
Act one sets up what’s happening in the story in its efficient opening sequence: Bodhi’s remains, the evil Black Stoners, and guilt-stricken Drizzle/Zeng are all established in a few quick action sequences. When Zeng changes her identity and tries to start a new life, the story takes a very intriguing turn. The second act mostly develops the romance between Zeng and Jiang, which is sweet and well-written. This subplot is engaging enough that it would have been nice if the script didn’t spend so much time cutting back to blustery Wheel King and his angry assassins. Their part in the story is not nearly as interesting or well-developed as Zeng and Jiang’s love story.
The love story is ultimately marred by the writer telegraphing the “twist” that Jiang is actually Zhang Renfeng, a Black Stone murder victim, far too early. It seemed obvious almost from the moment they met who Jiang would turn out to be, and it adds nothing to the story but a predictable surprise and a little bit of cheap irony. It also allows Jiang to participate in the fight sequences that dominate the third act. The writer also tries to squeeze last-minute character development—including important information like why Zeng changed her identity and why Wheel King is so obsessed with Bodhi’s remains—between the action, which doesn’t allow the characters any time to digest the revelations. It’s just a tidal wave of exposition to let the audience finally understand why these people do what they do, but the characters themselves don’t seem terribly interested in each other’s motives.
The characters’ seeming lack of motivation until the last few pages has a great deal to do with why the love subplot is significantly more interesting than the main storyline. The few characters who do have purpose—Zeng, Jiang, and Wheel King—are determined to keep secrets until the end. Without clueing in the audience, it will be difficult to get them invested on why Bodhi’s remains are so important to these characters and/or why they went to such great lengths to change their identities, even if the love story is interesting. When the information is finally revealed, it’s usually quite compelling. In the case of Wheel King’s “secret eunuch” revelation, it’s a fantastic surprise. However, until these last-minute bombshells, the characters remain at arm’s-length from the audience and, as such, it’s difficult to get absorbed in their activities.
The supporting characters have nothing going for them except varied fighting styles. These characters don’t do much more than talk tough and fight. While they may enhance the fight scenes, they don’t enhance the story in any way. Another last-minute reveal, Lian Sheng’s personal desire for the remains to help him stay youthful, adds dimension to that character roughly 15 seconds before he’s decapitated. Merely offering small bits of insight and ambitions to the supporting characters early in the story would go along way to making them more believable and valuable to the story.
As a martial-arts movie, Jianyu Jianghu will likely deliver great action sequences, but the story and characters surrounding those action sequences are too muddled to make it truly exciting. A rewrite is needed to make audiences truly care about who lives and dies in each battle.