The Assassin Review
Taiwanese director Hsiao-Hsien Hou has a predilection for historical moments of high drama. His most well-known film as of yet, A City of Sadness, is set in Taiwan in the late 1940s, after the Kuomintang movement’s arrival from mainland China. The Assassin takes place much further back in time - in the 9th century, during the Tang dynasty. With sumptuous cinematography and directing, the film is a slow, understated visual masterpiece that elegantly deals in themes of identity, lost love, and loyalty.
At the beginning of the film, we are told that the centralised Chinese Empire is losing grip on its peripheral, semi-independent regions, among which is the province of Weibo - the homeland of Nie Yinniang (Qi Shu), a highly trained assassin. Removed from her family in her teenage years, she was trained in her art by one of the Emperor’s sisters, and is sent back to murder the Lord of Weibo (Chen Chang), her cousin and former fiancé. Throughout, Yinniang grapples (silently) with her principles - to whom does she owe her duty, and why?
Dialogue is sparse (obscuring the plot somewhat), but yet The Assassin is dazzling to look at. It’s no grand claim to say that director of photography Ping Bin Lee must be some kind of genius. There are sweeping landscapes - bright fields, birch forests, rolling mountains matched to bright, ceremonious interiors, and warm candlelit scenes shot through gently swaying veils. Nothing is amiss. The sets and costume all look effortlessly natural and in keeping with the period, adding to the beauty of the shots.
Complementing the bare dialogue, acting performances are restrained but powerful. Chen is an intense presence, expressing both his power, sorrow and confusion in delicate, measured movements. Qi remains unreadable throughout - as she is to her victims - but her actions clearly mark the development of her character.
Hsiao-Hsien plays with the screen ratio, the film’s texture, and its colour range throughout. Gimmicky in other hands, these effects here fall perfectly into place. The fight scenes are yet another feature which marks The Assassin as extraordinary. The camera glides, the gestures are fluid - it’s both beautiful and believable. The audience is left asking, if anything, for more.
The Assassin is a brilliant piece of cinema - and will please especially those who are at ease stillness.