The Assassin Review

Hsiao-Hsien Hou’s last feature film was 2007’s Flight of the Red Balloon. Now his latest film, The Assassin, has garnered much acclaim, winning Best Director at Cannes and five awards at Taiwan’s Golden Horse Film Festival, as well as being named Sight and Sound magazine’s top film of 2015. With such a buzz that makes this one of the most anticipated films of the month, but how does it fare?

8th Century China. Nie Yinniang was taken from her family at a young age and taught the arts of assassination by her master, a mysterious nun. When Yinniang proves to be hesitant in carrying out her duty she is sent back to the land of her birth in Northern China. Her target is her cousin Tian Ji’an, the Lord of Weibo and the man she was once promised in marriage to.

This is a film of contradictions. Initially simple, but then becomes intricately complicated as it unfolds like a flower. The cinematography is sweepingly epic with some gorgeous views of the Chinese landscape, but is presented in Academy ratio which brings the focus in and makes everything highly intimate. The story also starts in black and white for its prologue, and then bursts into colour with the vibrant reds and oranges of a sunset.

It’s also a film that has no intention of holding the audience’s hand. We are left to our own devices to puzzle out certain situations. One such situation is a golden masked assassin that Yinniang fights. Is she a physical enemy, an agent of one of the film's political players, or is she a manifestation of Yinniang's inner battle concerning her mission?

The end result of both these facts is that the film is somewhat opaque, and whilst this can be rewarding for some I can see it being equally frustrating for others. However that doesn’t make the film any less beautiful, at times it’s almost like a moving painting with the pitch perfect use of framing and colour. Combined with the wonderful soundtrack, which also won at Cannes, you could almost be lulled to sleep; such is the fairytale quality the film achieves sometimes.

The main performance from Shu Qi is as much of a thing of beauty as the scenery and camera work. She gets so much across about Yinniang’s thoughts and feelings with at times almost no dialogue. Yinniang is a pawn in the political games of those around her, but one that seeks to make her own choices.

It is also interesting the extent to which women have the power in this world. Yinniang, her assassin master, her mother, Tian Ji’an’s wife Lady Tian, even the court dancer Huji, all have their own kind of influence over the men in the film. They are the ones at the centre of everything and whilst we get scenes of Tian Ji’an sitting and discussing matters with the men of his court, the women are the ones who actually get things done, for good or ill.

The Assassin is beautiful and exceptionally made, blurring the line between historical epic and the kind of political fantasy given to us by Game of Thrones. A must see, whatever you ultimately think of it.


A stunning film that is willing to reward those who pay attention to all the details.


out of 10

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