THE ASSASSIN (Taiwan/China/Hong Kong/France/12A/105mins)
Directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien. Starring Shu Qi, Chanc Chen, Tsumabuki Satoshi, Zhou Yun, Juan Chinc-tian, Lei Zhen-Yu, Hsieh Hsin-yinc, Sheu Fanc, Fang-yi Sheu..
China, the 9th century, and female assassin Nie Yinniang (Qi), is returned to her family home by her aunt Jiaxin (Fang-yi) after completing her training. Given the task of killing her wayward cousin Lord Tian (Lei) – the two having once been betrothed to one another – Yinniang struggles to go through with her mission. Emotions had gotten in the way too when Yinniang abandoned the killing of a government official when she saw his infant son was present. To fail again in her task will result in dire consequences, but Yinniang is determined to find a way out…
THE VERDICT: Goddamn, from that first glorious black’n’white frame, as a young woman is given her target to assassin under a small gathering of trees and nearby donkeys, the look of The Assassin is just stunning.It makes the leap to colour shortly afterwards all the more intoxicating.
Chosen by ‘Sight & Sound’ as their film of 2015, and the winner of a whole heap of awards, gongs and noms, Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien has said of his eight-years-in-the-making sombre martial arts drama that he wanted to steer clear of fantasy of your typical martial arts film and root this 9th century short story adaptation in reality. Taking merely the opening premise of Chinese writer Pei Xing’s celebrated story of a young assassin who is instructed to kill her wayward cousin, Hou then explores the tension between the central royal court and the warlords, having explored many historical documents chonicling that time.
That Hou took eight years to put this majestic film shows not only in the stunning beauty on display but also the dreamlike quality of the plotting. The man goes full Malick, as much is left unexplained; just as in real life. The narrative ambiguity takes more than a little concentration to follow on the viewer’s part, but such commitment pays dividends here, as the opulent beauty just keeps on blossoming before your eyes.
Oh, and the occasional burst of martial arts madness is sweetly handled too.
Review by Paul Byrne

The Assassin
  • 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. **