Ever since its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival back in 2015, The Assassin has become a film that has divided audiences everywhere with some describing it as being thoughtful and artistic whilst others derided it as being nothing more than ponderous and brain-numbingly slow. Granted, a lot of people will not find too much in this movie to flatter, and this has been proven even in China (its home-country), as there has been reports of lots of people falling into sleep in the cinema. But, if you embrace the movie for what it is, there is a lot to love and appreciate about it.
Despite being about the titular assassin, this is very much a political story, referring back to the tension between the central control and the local force, which has always been an issue for China for thousands of years. Weibo, which is where the story takes place, is caught within a struggle with two contrasting political forces fighting with each other. We have one group that’s inclined to condone peace with the central court, including with the assassin herself, Nie Yinniang and her whole family. The other group, on the other hand, wants to strengthen the local power, which involves the wife of the lord, Tian Ji’an, as their marriage is a form of political alliance. This is a film that tackles real political issues and debates that have become enriched in the history of China, and this film captures that brilliantly.
For the Chinese, the Tang Dynasty and its culture has always been like a fantasy and a little bit exotic for a lot of people, given the fact there’s frequent communication with varying and contrasting ethnics and civilizations, which made the Tang quite inclusive. This film captures that lifestyle, the architecture, as well as the costumes and dances, which makes the film all the more attractive. Also, the film does a great job at being an almost loose adaptation of the Nie Yinniang short story by Pei Xing, which is famous for being one of the very first stories in fiction to feature a female protagonist, which back then during the late 9th Century was very radical. The cinematography by Mark Lee Ping Bing is beautifully breathtaking, especially given the fact that nearly all the shots in the film are dominated by natural elements, like wind, smoke, fog, etc. This makes the shots look all the more natural, and the way the film unfolds really captures the artistry of classical Chinese poetries and paintings.
Granted, the film’s not going to appeal to everyone; the film’s pacing is very slow, and the actions of characters are very simple. Plus, it is very much show and not tell given the fact that the director, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, is someone who is not interested in plot. If you are not a fan of all that, then this movie will not be for you definitely, but if you’re a fan of Chinese poetry and paintings, and are willing to appreciate what the film is actually about, then this is the film for you.
Dir: Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Scr: Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Chu Tien-wen, Hsieh Hai-Meng, Zhong Acheng
Cast: Shu Qi, Chang Chen, Zhou Yun, Satoshi Tsumabuki, Ethan Juan, Hsieh Hsin-Ying, Ni Dahong, Yong Mei, Fang-Yi Sheu, Lei Zhenyu
Prd: Wen-Ying Huang, Ching-Song Liao
DOP: Mark Lee Ping Bing
Music: Giong Lim
Country: China, Hong Kong, Taiwan
Run time: 105 mins
The Assassin will be available on DVD and Blu-Ray on the 23rd of May.