The Assassin caused some buzz a year ago at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, where its Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien won Best Director and critics fell over themselves to sing the movie’s praises. Now a year on, and whilst the festival finds a new darling, the acclaimed martial arts film has finally made it to television screens with a home entertainment release.
It’s not a movie for everyone, yet hard earned patience for those who choose to watch is rewarded, not with high drama or huge plot twists, but with stunning cinematography and beautifully choreographed fight scenes that cut like a knife through the peaceful surroundings.
The story is inspired by a classic Chinese martial arts tale and despite a complex backstory about the Tang Dynasty that will have you reaching for the history books, the main plot line is actually fairly simple.
Focused on the assassin of the title, Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), we see her fail to carry out an order from her master when she comes across her target of a corrupt government official sleeping with his son in his arms. As punishment, Yinniang receives the ultimate test: to kill the military leader of a distant province, Tian Ji’an (Change Chen). He’s no ordinary target though- the assassin’s cousin, he had once been her betrothed.
Shu Qi portrays a formidable opponent as Yinniang, whose face barely shows emotion but whose inaction betrays a hidden heart tormented by the past. Yet while the assassin’s story is important of course, and we’re swept along by the conflict that accompanies her task, the plot isn’t the main focus here.
The film is all about atmosphere. Playing with the aspect ratio as if to pull the audience away and push it back, the film also experiments with sound editing in a way that is instantly striking. What the characters say becomes background noise to the gentle sounds of the land, the plants and the wind. It’s a film that celebrates the stunning natural landscape of China, emphasising a peaceful land and passive setting for the human pain and conflict of the time.
When a fight actually happens, the sounds come as a shock and the action is swift where the rest of the film is intensely slow. It only serves to emphasise both the beauty and the quick violence that accompanies deadly martial arts. Every aggressive action is a shock in a film that otherwise runs along quietly.
The Assassin is a beautifully crafted film but impatient cinema goers should be beware. This is a film that doesn’t provide much by the way of plot or background, especially for Western viewers, but as a cinematic spectacle it uses remarkable techniques with the medium. The DVD version may not pack the same punch as a cinema screening would’ve done, but it’s still a treat for the filmgoer looking for something complete unlike the oncoming summer blockbusters.
[rating=4] | Jen Scouler
Drama, World Cinema | Taiwan, China, 2015 | 12 | Studiocanal | 23rd May 2016 (UK) | Dir.Hsiao-hsien Hou | Shu Qi, Chen Chang, Satoshi Tsumabuki, Shao-Huai Chang, Hsieh Hsin-Ying | Buy:[DVD]