Assassin, The (2015)

Review #1,210

Director:  Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Cast:  Shu Qi, Chang Chen, Satoshi Tsumabuki
Plot:  10-year-old general’s daughter Nie Yinniang is abducted by a nun who initiates her into the martial arts, transforming her into an exceptional assassin charged with eliminating cruel and corrupt local governors.  One day, having failed in a task, she is sent back by her mistress to the land of her birth, with orders to kill the man to whom she was promised - a cousin who now leads the largest military region in North China. 

Genre:  Drama / Action
Awards:  Won Best Director and Soundtrack Award (Cannes).
Runtime:  107min
Rating:  PG
International Sales:  Wild Bunch
Singapore Distributor:  Shaw Organisation

We had to wait eight long years for a new film by Hou Hsiao-Hsien, and now that we got it in the form of The Assassin, we ought to take some time of our own to fully reflect on this truly one-of-a-kind work.  It is no doubt a work by a master, one who is equally at ease with using the medium of cinema to evoke the spirit of times (in this case of ancient times), as well as challenging our expectations of what cinema can aspire towards. 

The Assassin stars Shu Qi in the title role as a lone swordswoman, cunning and highly-skilled, as she is tasked with a mission to assassinate a reigning ruler who happens to be her cousin.  She must respect her codes of honour as a fighter, but is also complicated by emotions stemming from personal history with her ‘enemy’.  It is this dilemma that forms the backbone of Hou's film.  But it is not something Hou is too concerned with – the entire film is loosely structured, maybe even to a fault, but my thinking is that The Assassin is not so much about storytelling than it is about myth-making. 

Hou knows what he wants to achieve, and his film brings you deep into a world of strangely alluring characters and astonishing landscapes.  This is certainly one of the most gorgeous martial arts pictures ever made, and because it doesn't present a stylized vision (as compared to films like Zhang Yimou's Hero (2002) or Wong Kar-Wai's The Grandmaster (2013)), The Assassin comes across as a more earthly picture.  Its naturalism is a sight to behold, particularly Hou's use of natural lighting in the night interior scenes. 

The effect is subtle, just like the hypnotizing music, which doesn't intrude until at the very end.  And when it does (with a piercing ethnic wind instrument no less), it elevates the film spiritually, closing the narrative, if only temporarily, while continuing to mythicize and eternalize a bygone time and the impermanence of mortal existence. 

The Assassin may be extremely slow, not to mention there's a scarcity of action scenes (they act as transitions rather than full-blown sequences), but it digs deep into the philosophy of Chinese history, tradition, landscape, art, and even genre.  Hou's film shouldn’t just be appreciated at face value, it ought to be embraced as if taking small sips of hot tea under a tree on a misty mountain's peak.  Then you can really contemplate the whole or Hou’s picture, whichever satisfies you.

Verdict:  Hou’s latest may be extremely slow and loosely structured, but its sheer beauty and assured direction will bring you deep into a world of strangely alluring characters, dilemmatic codes of honour and astonishing landscapes.


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