Review: Taiwanese arthouse director and Cannes darling, Hou Hsiao-hsien returns with a new, pretentious wuxia bravura in The Assassin, which granted him Best Director award in the festival which love him much.
Based on a story, even a myth, from the 9th century China, The Assassin is not just an exhibition of exquisite production design and beautifully orchestrated martial arts; it’s a critic-winner. But, not everyone is a critic.
The best way to describe the story is: a female assassin in black (Shu Qi)—known for terminating corrupted officials—is assigned to kill a target by her superior, a nun-princess in white (Fang-yi Shieu). When she fails the mission out of mercy, the nun-princess attempts to forge her willpower by assigning her to kill a ruler of her childhood town, which happens to be her own cousin and a man she should’ve been married in the past. That’s the simple way; but, honestly, there’s no simple way to describe it.
The Assassin doesn’t really much on direct story-telling to narrate the titular assassin’s tale. Everything feels floating with the camera work by Lee Ping Bin (In the Mood for Love and Hsiau-hsien’s regular) still-focuses on a frame for a long time—enabling the audiences to witness details around the precise mise-en-scene background. Hsiau-hsien realizes too much on his prowess in visual ecstasy; he lets us see the assassin comes from under the shade, observes the situation, and leaves the crime-scene just like that.
Silence plays important roles along with voices of the nature—the breeze, birds’ chirps, even distant (almost inaudible) dialogue—to bring meanings to the picture. Dialogues are almost absent all the time, but when it exists, the substance is perplexing; meanwhile, most of the time, that’s where most information regarding story’s background is explicitly stated. Even, what I have mentioned in the synopsis, most of the information could only be gotten from the unprecedented dialogues.
To this point, The Assassin might seem philosophical and, obviously, segmented. But, that isn’t a guarantee that it’s digestible.
Less orchestrated than predecessors in artsy wuxia, like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hsiau-hsien’s feature is more to literature than to fine arts. Beside of historical and political subtext, The Assassin never really tells a story; it seems like illustrating someone’s state of mind (in this case, the assassin) but with visual aids in a very slow pace.
Sole viewing wouldn’t be advisable; since The Assassin‘s the kind of movie requiring deep contemplation and, most importantly, second viewing. The problem is, it’s also another kind of movie which cannot be skim-watching to understand even on the second viewing. Definitely, it’s not a movie for everyone and I don’t praise it for that; but certainly, it’s worth some shots.
The Assassin (2015)