The Palme D’or Best Director winner and Sight and Sound magazine’s best film of 2015, The Assassin comes laboured with plaudits and expectations. But can it deliver on them
Snatched when she was ten years old, Yinniang (Qi Shu) was trained as a deadly assassin. After failing a mission due to her empathy she is sent back to her homeland where she is ordered to kill her former intended husband, Tian Ji’an (Chen Chang).
Firstly, we must address a misleading idea of what The Assassin may be like. From its title and trailer it appears that The Assassin is an action and martial arts heavy film that will have pulses racing and, though it is a wuxia movie, this is not the case. It is a much more meditative and introspective film. The few fight scenes that appear are entertaining and well choreographed, suddenly erupting and over quite quickly. They are much more grounded and realistic than the high wire fights of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon or the blood gushing violence of samurai films like Zatoichi, though a strange and distracting use of magic and mysticism later in the film plays against this stylistic choice. If you’re after an all-fighting action film this is not it.
Certainly, The Assassin has a languid pace, moving slowly, and often quietly due to a sparsely used score, through its scenes and stories, often just focusing on people or places which don’t seem to be doing a lot and this may be quite a big turn off for some viewers, making the film seem like a chore rather than a pleasure. However, the film has an almost hypnotic feeling that draws you in and caresses you, leading you through the film and its hour and forty minute running time without ever really feeling like its dragging its heels. The Assassin is often gorgeous to look at, with its exquisite production design showing off the beautiful architecture and the elegant costumes of Ancient China, that often add a splash of colour to the screen, and also the wonderful landscape shots seen in the forest, waterfall and cliff side scenes.
The film has a predominantly smaller aspect ratio than many, the older style 4:3 that is much squarer than the usual widescreen aspect, and this lends itself to the film’s scope. Films set in China that involve warring factions and families are often quite epic in scope, taking in armies and grand palaces but The Assassin is a much more drawn in story, concerning itself with the relationship and history of the eponymous assassin Yinniang and the family that have wronged her. The camera peeks at and views the action from a human level, making the viewer feel like they are watching through Yinniang’s spying eyes. Occasionally the view is partially obscured, like when we view a conversation through breeze-touched curtains, reinforcing this feeling of voyeurism. This scope does mean that the film gently glides you through its story before ending not with a bang and not quite a whimper but more of a gentle exhale.
The Assassin is a mesmerising and gorgeous film that you have to let yourself get wrapped up in. Don’t go expecting Kill Bill and you might find a lot to enjoy.
THE ASSASSIN / CERT: 12 / DIRECTOR: HOU HSIAO-HSIEN / SCREENPLAY: HOU HSIAO-HSIEN, CHU TIEN-WEN, HSIEH HAI-MENG, ZHONG ACHENG / STARRING: SHU QI, CHANG CHEN, ZHOU YUN, SATOSHI TSUMABUKI / RELEASE DATE: 23RD MAY