THE ASSASSIN (Taiwan/TBC/120mins)
Directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien. Starring Shen Qi, Sheu Fang-yi, Chang Chen.
THE PLOT: In 7th century China, Yinnang (Shu Qi) a trained assassin is sent to execute a governor. When she balks at the mission because the governor’s child was there, the ‘princess-nun’ Jiaxin (Sheu Fang-yi) sends her back to her home in Weibo to kill her cousin Tian (Chang Chen), the governor of the region. Returning home is a challenge for Yinnang, not least because she and her cousin used to be incredibly close.
THE VERDICT: Director Hou Hsiao-Hsien takes on Chinese and Taiwanese myth in THE ASSASSIN, filling the film with beautiful cinematography, parables about birds and a plot that is almost impossible to follow. Shu Qi embodies the stillness and resolve of the martial arts assassin as Yinnang, but although this is a character obviously plagued with memories and questions of morality, we rarely see this on the surface of the film, instead being left to guess at her motivations when her actions are revealed. Chang Chen makes Tiang arrogant but with a kind streak; a man who obviously enjoys the lavish lifestyle he has come accustomed to, but is internally as conflicted as his cousin.
T’ien-wen Chu’s screenplay opens powerfully, with Yinnag sent out to kill, and doing so with aplomb. The film continues well until the politics of China at the time, the delicate peace between the regions and the family woes creep onto the screen, when The Assassin turns into a rambling, confusing and ambiguous affair, with the audience not sure where their loyalties should lie.
As director, Hou Hsiao-Hsien has created an atmospheric piece, thanks to a huge contribution from cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bing who switches from black and white to colour early on, and plays with light and darkness throughout. The Assassin is a slowly paced and often torturous film, with the incredibly brief but thrilling martial arts sequences, and a touch of the supernatural doing little to alleviate the unclear plot and rambling story. Walkouts were plenty at the press screening in Cannes. When it all comes back together, however, The Assassin makes a kind of beautiful sense, but since this is only achieved in hindsight, it is hard to appreciate the film at the time.
In all, THE ASSASSIN is a film that benefits from hindsight; the plot is a mess, the pacing arduous at times but Shu Qi is wonderful and the cinematography is delightful. It’s just a shame these two wonderful contributions lack a coherent story to keep them together.
RATING: 2.5/5
Review by Brogen Hayes

Cannes Review - The Assassin
Review by Brogen Hayes
2.5Benefits from hindsight
  • Ronan411

    Is this movie being shown anywhere in Ireland?

    • filmbuff2011

      It’s showing in the IFI from Friday. I’m not sure about other cinemas yet.

      • Ronan411

        Thank you filmbuff – I’ve been hoping to see this film for a while now.

  • filmbuff2011

    Recently nominated for a BAFTA and also winner of Best Director at Cannes last year, The Assassin is typical of the type of film that Cannes juries love. It’s beautifully shot and well-directed. But it’s also oblique, hard to penetrate and requires a lot of patience from regular audiences. Maybe too much.

    In 9th Century China, the Tang Dynasty seeks to fortify its position of power in surrounding provinces. The rebel Weibo province refuses to do so. A young female warrior named Qi (Nie Yinniang) is sent from Weibo to kill political leader of the Tang Dynasty, Tian Ji’an (Chen Chang). They have a history together – they are cousins and were once set to be married when they were teenagers. Things have changed though. Tian now has a wife and family. Qi has many opportunities to kill him, but holds back her sword. She will have to choose the way of conflict and war – or the way of mutual respect for her enemy.

    There’s no denying that The Assassin is a strikingly visual film. The locations in China and Inner Mongolia look untouched – a deliberate move on the part of director Hou Hsiao-hen, who directs with a firm grip. The occasional moves from black and white to colour are done in subtle ways that compliment the scenes before and after. The occasional changes in aspect ratios, a la last year’s Mommy, can be a little distracting but are perhaps meant to widen out the story as much as the image.

    Sadly, that’s where the good stuff ends though. Chinese films can often be slow-moving and lack dialogue, a cultural trait that is normal there but difficult to access for western audiences (that’s why John Woo’s two-part epic Red Cliff was condensed into one film here). The result is that it’s hard to shake off the feeling of The Assassin being somewhat boring. That’s never a good thing in a film. Fight sequences are all too brief and intermittent, so anyone going in expecting something like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon will be left wanting.

    This reviewer went in aware of this, but the film never really took off in his mind. Half way through, the plot drifted away and became irrelevant to the point of several watch-checks. It’s like Hsiao-hen didn’t particularly care about plot and characters and concentrated more on looking at fields and landscapes. When Terrence Malick does that, he at least keeps the characters and their arcs in tow. The Assassin is visually sumptous but it ultimately rings hollow. It’s like a Ming vase – nice to look at and admire, but all it does is sit there. More is needed to find an emotional engagement with an audience. **