Review: The Assassin (2015)


In ninth century Tang Dynasty China, the empire is in disarray, with various warlords competing against the Imperial Court for control of the country’s many regions. When the assassin Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi) shows mercy to a target, her mistress punishes her by sending her to Weibo to kill Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen), the paranoid military governor who rules the region and to whom Nie Yinniang was betrothed as a child. Nie Yinniang is torn, forced to choose between her duty and her heart. The fate of the entire region of Weibo may hang in the balance.

Right off the bat it’s best to disavow yourself of the notion that Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin is a true wuxia film. Master director Hou is known for pioneering the Taiwanese New Wave with glacially-paced dramas full of meticulously-framed, stationary long-takes and subtle narrative conflict. Although he’s working in martial arts epic mode here, it’s not like he was going to drop his trademarks and go for broke with elaborate set-pieces and wire-fu action like you’d find in a Yuen Woo-ping film. If you go into The Assassin in anticipation of epic fight scenes, you’re going to be sadly disappointed. It’s a failure as a kung fu film, but an enchanting success as an art film. Adjust your expectations accordingly.

Because if you can get on Hou’s wavelength, The Assassin becomes something beautiful. It’s full of still compositions of trees blowing in the wind or slow dolly shots of private conversations behind bed curtains. When there are action scenes, Hou deliberately confounds the viewer’s expectation of excitement. In one instance he jumps away from the action, positioning the camera on one side of a river as Yinniang does battle with a group of guards on the other side. In other moments, he cuts away entirely. He’s more interested in the relationships between the characters, spatially as much as emotionally, than the fights. The characters, their situations, the elaborate costumes and sets—they’re all just pieces to be arranged, elements of a grand picture that stirs something in your gut that’s not really an emotion, but almost something spiritual.

The Assassin is a purely aesthetic experience. Its characters are impenetrable. It whispers at themes of duty and love, but it’s more about the immediate image in front of the viewer’s eyes than the implications of its characters’ actions. It’s best not to attempt to unravel the film’s meaning in the midst of watching it. Like with a great painting on a large canvas, it’s best to relax your eyes and let the art do the work.

8 out of 10

The Assassin (2015, Taiwan/China/Hong Kong/France)

Directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien; written by Hou Hsiao-hsien, Chu Tien-wen, Hsieh Hai-meng, and Zhong Acheng; starring Shu Qi, Chang Chen, Zhou Yun, and Satoshi Tsumabuki.

This review was originally published at the now-defunct Toronto Film Scene.