0465 | The Assassin

The Assassin arrived in UK cinemas last month with a big reputation. It’s the latest film by acclaimed Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien, it earned rave reviews after it was screened during the 2015 Cannes Film Festival – where Hou won the Best Director award – and it figured highly on the majority of the year’s ‘best of’ lists written by critics who had caught it in competition; Sight & Sound recently named it their ‘best film of 2015’. Much of the praise bestowed upon film and director has centred around the abundance of beautiful images, and there are certainly enough here to please anyone with a love of formal, visually-striking cinema, while a deftly-constructed enigmatic aura also had critics foaming at the mouth before collectively putting finger to keyboard. Yet The Assassin‘s elliptical nature means that it has been met with something of a backlash now that more people can finally see it: it is hard to stay abreast of the plot here, even though it’s not impossible to do so, which means it’s no surprise that some critics have broken rank to express their (entirely valid) frustrations with the film. Reports of paying customers walking out of the cinema have also surfaced, which is a shame, even though it’s not the first arthouse film to alienate people and it certainly won’t be the last. It probably hasn’t helped matters that The Assassin‘s trailer leaned heavily on the film’s few, brief martial arts sequences, which perhaps do it a disservice; this is Hou’s first foray into the wuxia genre, yes, but it is much slower and far less reliant on action taking place in the jianghu than, say, Zhang Yimou’s crossover hits Hero and House Of Flying Daggers.

It’s evident from very early on that you’re watching a film in which a lot of care and attention has been given to every single shot. It’s an aesthetically-pleasing work for all sorts of reasons. Shot using a variety of different ratios (the monochrome prologue is in Academy 1:1.37, the rest is at 1:1.41, and Hou makes brief use of an even wider ratio), there are a number of beautiful sequences set inside a governor’s palace, and the work that has gone into the mise-en-scène and the costume design, historically-accurate by all accounts, is indeed impressive; it’s worth a second viewing just to look at the fabrics on show. Hou’s cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin captures a series of luscious shots outdoors, too, with exquisite photography of green fields and forests gracing the picture. A number of slow, tracking shots allow you to drink in the natural beauty. Throughout all of these locations we follow trained assassin Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi) as she undergoes a test set by her master; the main question is whether Nie has the resolve to kill her target and cousin Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen), the military governor of Weibo to whom she was once betrothed. The enigmatic nature of Hou’s film means that Nie’s love for Tian (and the pain caused by their subsequent forced separation) is teased out gradually, and (as far as I could tell) is never explicitly stated, but the two lead performances are successful in conveying their mixed emotions, particularly Shu Qi. The scenes featuring this pair in and around the palace are fascinating, especially as they manage to drive home the story’s nature versus nurture theme as it applies to the titular assassin, who was taken away for training at the age of ten and returns as a 23-year-old woman, but it’s only half the story. Hou emphasises the relationships between Nie and the other female characters just as much, if not more, and they’re more clearly defined. These include Nie’s opponent Lady Tian (Zhou Yun), Tian Ji’ans wife and – as it turns out – a worthy fighting opponent, and Jiaxin (Fang-Yi Sheu), the princess-turned-nun who trained Nie from an early age to become a killer. In fact the film is bookended by scenes that explore the changing relationship between Nie and her master, as clear an indication as any that this is what The Assassin is really about, as opposed to it being Tian Ji’an and Nie’s love story. (Somewhat confusingly Fang-Yi Sheu actually plays two characters, twin sisters, which is perhaps one of the reasons some have found the story confusing.)

ASSASSIN (THE)_4-0-2000-0-1125-crop

Tian Ji’an, played by Chang Chen

Hou’s obtuseness is deliberate, and although I appreciate that many people have no problem coping with the feeling of being lost during a screening, it gnawed away at me and I never felt relaxed enough to enjoy myself which, after all, is the whole point, right? (I probably should have taken Mark Kermode’s advice; he suggested a lot of viewers would benefit from reading an outline of the plot beforehand, or perhaps by brushing up on their knoweldge of 9th Century Tang period history, culture and society.) In this case my lack of understanding as to who some of the main characters were, or the nature of their relationships with one another, presented a barrier that I couldn’t overcome while watching the film. As with Godard’s Goodbye To Language – another Sight & Sound poll-topper – I was left trying to balance a vague feeling of cinematic inadequacy (when you feel something is flying over your head that has won the adoration of critics) with honest common sense (put simply there’s no right or wrong way to feel about a movie and if you watch enough of them it won’t be long before one frustrates). Everyone reacts to art in different ways and the most important thing – if you’re going to write about it afterwards, at any rate – is to be honest. So yeah, I found The Assassin to be a frustrating experience at times, but I couldn’t possibly dismiss the film outright and I can see why it has been so highly praised. Regardless of anything else The Assassin does look very good indeed. Likely your enjoyment of it will come down to whether or not you’re happy to proceed without a firm grasp on the plot and to simply bathe in its beauty. Of course you can always fill in the gaps by reading about the film before or after you watch it. For what it’s worth I feel fairly sure I’ll enjoy the experience of watching The Assassin more next time, and will get more from it now that I have a slightly better understanding of the story.

Directed by: Hou Hsiao-Hsien.
Written by: Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Chu Tien-wen, Hsieh Hai-Meng, Zhong Acheng.
Starring: Shu Qi, Chang Chen, Zhou Yun, Hsieh Hsin-Ying, Fang-Yi Sheu, Satoshi Tsumabuki, Ethan Juan.
Cinematography: Mark Lee Ping Bin.
Editing: Huang Chih-Chia
Music: Lim Giong.
Running Time: 
105 minutes.




Comments 10

  1. Cindy Bruchman February 9, 2016

    I’ve got this one high on my list to see–I’ve heard it’s a great film. After reading your post, I am hungry to watch it! Nothing wrong with taking a couple times to experience/understand the film. I’ll take beauty any day to get me started. 🙂

    • Stu February 9, 2016

      Thanks Cindy, I think that’s true, and I’d definitely like to return to this in the future to see how different it feels second time round. I’d like to see your review of this.
      I found the experience of watching it mixed – it is as beautiful a film as anyone will likely see all year, but I just felt so distant from it, purely as a result of not being able to follow the nuances of the plot; it’s easy enough to get a handle on the gist of it but the articles and reviews I’ve read since have made me realise how much I missed at the time!

    • Stu February 10, 2016

      I would definitely do so…even if it’s just a synopsis (although I guess there is one in the review now). It’s well worth seeing on the big screen despite my comments. Cheers Mark.

  2. Jordan Dodd February 10, 2016

    Man you write so damned well, great reading again. It makes me reflect on what I said about it. I basically bathed in the beauty, I was unfortunately a little tired so I totally missed the plot but was just gazing at the screen in disbelief. I saw it on a giant IMAX screen too, it was immense. Sadly it isn’t releasing at the cinemas here at all I don’t think, which is a real shame.

    I think some of the walk outs were due to movies like Ong Bak and The Raid.. when i was lining up to see it I heard guys talking about blood flying everywhere and how psyched they were for it. Can definitely see how it would frustrate them, as well as the lack of plot.

    • Stu February 10, 2016

      Thanks very much! I honestly thought after all I’d heard/read beforehand that I’d be able to go along and just sit and be taken along by the visuals, but I think in this case the plot is central to the experience (as opposed to, say, late period Terrence Malick) and it just frustrated the hell out of me that I couldn’t get a handle on what was going on! Never mind…worse things happen at sea, and all that.
      I can see how someone looking for full-on action (or even something resembling Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) would be disappointed. Their fault for not checking before going in though haha! I have no sympathy.

      • Jordan Dodd February 10, 2016

        Hehe, no sympathy indeed. I think it helped that I was in the tired state I was. I was able to laze about not really following what happened. This resulted in a rather pathetic review for the site that got me the comp tickets! Oops

        • Jordan Dodd February 10, 2016

          haha yeah I just gazed with my eyes half closed at the beauty on screen, occasionally passing out entirely until my head rolled to the side, waking me back up. Not the ideal state to watch a movie in, especially when you are supposed to be covering it!!

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