The Assassin has been a long time coming. It was in gestation for 25 years, and in various stages of production for a further five, but has now finally arrived. A movie that is similar terms of both hype and genre would be The Grandmaster (2013), directed by Wong Kar-wai. Both films have an acclaimed director that rarely explores mainstream genre, protracted production phases and creators with distinct styles (Hou’s is naturalistic while Wong’s is more romanticised). And now we have The Assassin, starring Hou’s muse Shu Qi, alongside Chang Chen. Has it been worth the wait? For Hou fans, it is heaven, but for martial arts fans, its qualities may be more questionable
Against the background of a settled conflict between the Imperial Court and the powerful Weibo military province, Shu Qi stars as Nie Yinniang, the titular assassin who has trained under Master Jiaxing (Sheu Fang-Yi) since a young age. Yinniang goes on various missions to take down corrupt government officials until one day she fails to kill the son of the target. She is then punished with a new mission – going back to her hometown where she was taken in, reuniting with her family, and killing a man whom she was set to marry, Governor Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen). Will she be able to carry on the mission or will she fight back?
First off, let’s talk about the technical values of the film. Using real locations, with saturated colours and the authentic costumes worn by the characters, there is no lack of effort apparent in the look of the film, which is spectacular on the big screen. The opening is in black-and-white and the cinematography still looks fantastic; then, when the title card shows up, the colours explode into place. There’s a scene in the film when Yinniang storms the palace and the use of smoke in the shot looks incredibly nightmarish, almost as if a ghost came after the character. There are many scenes that you just have to witness on a wide screen. As for the costumes, some evoke the look of 1970s or 1980s wuxia films and yet they don’t call attention to themselves as these designs do not look too exaggerated. There’s a fight scene in a forest between Yinniang and another character that recalls King Hu’s classic A Touch of Zen (1971), and that’s a compliment.
Speaking of the fight scenes, those who are looking for thrills and action set pieces should not watch this film. The fight scenes here are quick, efficient, done without remorse, and are over before they even start, which makes perfect sense since Yinniang is portrayed to be the best of her kind, silent but deadly. The actors also lend their skills to the material and suit the tone that Hou is going for. Shu, although she is too old for her role, is fantastic as Nie Yinniang. Her understated acting pays off with surprising emotional dividends, notably in a scene where she is nursed after being wounded, while she handles her fight scenes professionally. Funnily enough, her actual age lends a sort of maturity to the role that never would have been shown is she had played the role at 23. (the character’s age). Chang, who has played Shu’s love interest before, looks the part and brings a practiced chemistry with his co-star, but doesn’t really add much more to the role. Supporting roles are better (particularly with regards to the female cast members) with Sheu excelling as the master of Yinniang as she is granted plenty of opportunities to convey the character’s cold-hearted nature and Zhou Yun convinces as Tian Ji’an’s wife, who suppresses her anger over the situation.
As for the storytelling, the pacing is really slow, almost glacial. But fortunately, the story is a wuxia template, with all of its tropes cut down to its pure essentials. There’s a mention of Yinniang’s training at a young age that could pay off in crowd-pleasing ways, but it is never shown. Fight scenes are never sprawling or long-winded. There’s very little use of wire-work in the fight scenes. In fact, nothing about the story is sprawling at all, which unlike the look of the film, is kept to a bare minimum. Even the aspect ratio of the film is done in 4:3, which keeps a tight focus on the film at hand. Like many wuxia stories, the characters and narrative may be a bit hard to follow but Hou makes this approach definitively and uniquely his, as it is more about his naturalistic approach than it is about convoluted storytelling. Any veneer in the story or characters that show flaws or cracks in its appearance, it pays off emotionally, but you have to look out for it, which can be hard when you are gazing at the film more than you are looking. This approach to storytelling may not always work – Hou’s earlier The Flowers of Shanghai (1998) bored me to sleep – but the bigger budget and change in genre bring a refreshing feel to those familiar with Hou’s work as well as those willing to step beyond the martial arts norm.
Much like Wong with The Grandmaster, Hou has made a martial arts film that is more of a personal statement than a genre piece, although his style suits the genre surprisingly well. Again, like The Grandmaster, it will definitely split people’s opinions, but The Assassin certainly makes its mark in martial arts cinema.
This review has been cross-posted at Film-momatic Reviews.