The Assassin

2015/ Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, France

Director: Hsiao-Hsien Hou

Starring: Qi Shu, Chen Chang, Satoshi Tsumabuki

Words: B. Halford

In the 9th century, the states of what would become China are in a state of conflict, with violence being commonplace. In the province of Hubei, Nie Yinniang (Shu) is a proficient assassin who kills noblemen with her stealth and agility. One day she is called away to Weibo by her mentor Jiaxin (Feng-Yi Sheu) to kill governor Tian Ji’an (Gang); Yinniang’s cousin and once-betrothed.

With awards season upon us, the world turns to the various ceremonies to look at the varied films getting recognition. Amongst them is something of an oddball, The Assassin; a film that has managed to capture the coveted Best Director prize at the Cannes film festival for Hou Hsiao-Hsien, but was also conspicuously absent from any award categories at the upcoming Oscars. Whilst we can never truly be certain as to why committees of various awards do and do not nominate films, The Assassin’s disparity in recognition is somewhat telling of a film that will inevitably fall into the “love it or hate it” camp.

To wider audiences, The Assassin has been sold as a wuxia action film in the vein of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and whilst this isn’t inaccurate in terms of genre, The Assassin is ultimately a far more sedate affair than it has been advertised as.

What constitutes most of The Assassin is a focus on the time and place rather than on the action. This definitely has its positive side as the film takes its time with the visuals that are absolutely gorgeous and amongst the best I’ve seen for a long time. Painterly and making the absolute most of the environment. The issue that comes with that however is that it detracts somewhat from what is going on in the foreground, especially as the languid pace can tax the attention span.

The film compensates for this by a rather modest and straight-forward plot. Whilst the tendency is to see wuxia films as indulgent epics, The Assassin clocks in at around 100 minutes, meaning that the slow pacing doesn’t come into much conflict with a very convoluted or complex story.

As the film’s lead, Qi Shu doesn’t exactly put in a poor performance but is never particularly memorable. She’s sold much more on her abilities as an assassin than as much of a noteworthy character despite the backstory. Her enigmatic aspect is certainly in keeping with a memorable lineage stretching back through Mad Max and The Man With No Name, but lacks something of the charisma or sympathy of such roguish figures.

Where the character of Yinniang  does come alive however, is in the film’s sparse action sequences. Again, something of a break from western expectations, these fights are relatively more realistic and quiet, lacking in bombast but definitely abundant in character, style and a great example on how to use choreographed movement to visually tell a story.

You can’t really argue that The Assassin isn’t a visually striking film. The whole thing is extraordinary to look at and is worth the time and money but there is a feeling that you’re watching a series of slides about the beauty of Chinese nature with the occasional fight scene thrown in. Gorgeous but a little pretentious and dull.