“Epic” doesn’t even begin to describe the enormity of craftsmanship on display in Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s visually marvelous The Assassin. Forgive the hyperbole, but no film has looked this gorgeous since Terrence Malick’s cinematic stunner The Tree of Life. From its lavish production design to Mark Lee Ping Bin’s staggering cinematography that gives immersion a whole new meaning, The Assassin is a moving painting brushed with such focus yet tender care by its legendary director. Even more impressive is the fact that The Assassin marks Hsiao-Hsien’s first foray into the wuxia genre. While Hsiao-Hsien doesn’t quite strike the perfect “beauty versus action” balance Ang Lee mastered in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the quieter energy of The Assassin works for an “old school” arthouse crowd that’s bound to flock in droves. Had its narrative been as grand as all else encompassing it, The Assassin might have been one of the year’s finest films. As it stands, The Assassin is a spellbinding tour-de-force that plays best when the dialogue fades and the action is unremitting.
The Assassin opens with an unforgettable prologue, shot entirely in black-and-white that instantly calls to mind the breathtaking environments marred by violence in many an Akira Kurosawa film. Tensions are at an all-time high in ninth century China between the province of Weibo and the Imperial Court, the former of which seeks total autonomy. In order to prevent the Imperial Court from exerting full control over Weibo and its populace, those still loyal to Emperor must be removed from power at all cost. This includes assassinating upper ranking officials who might otherwise undermine all Weibo has fought for since declaring their dissidence. In charge of this undesirable task is Yinniang (Shu Qi), an expert in the art of assassination who has recently returned from exile after thirteen years under the tutelage of an opportunistic Taoist nun (Fang-Yi Sheu). The prologue effectively establishes Yinniang as a deadly killer with somewhat of a conscience when her blade is tasked to kill all without mercy, up to and including children of her assigned kills.
Severe inner turmoil occurs once Yinniang returns to her master and reports her failure. Unrelenting in her apathy, the nun then commissions Yinniang to return to Weibo and assassinate her cousin/formerly betrothed, Governor Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen). Tian Ji’an is recklessly endangering the province every time he openly aggravates the Imperial Court, which has reluctantly agreed to leave Weibo in peace so long as there’s no threat of invasion. The moral conflict Yinniang faces of hacking down her own flesh and blood in the name of political solidarity weighs heavily on her throughout her mission. Thus a battle rages on inside Yinniang’s conscience between what is right and what is necessary. Though her facial expressions are minimal, actress Shu Qi is alarmingly specific with her subtlety and leaves no room to guess just how much pain is buried beneath those iconic haunting death glares.
Matching the quality of Qi’s performance is the ever reliable Chang Chen, who plays Tian Ji’an with a bit more refined swagger than his breakout role as Lo in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Once again, an impeccable supporting performance from an Asian performer will likely go unnoticed at the Academy Awards in favor of, say, a veteran actor who has kissed Hollywood’s feet for many a decade. It’s such a shame since Chen has a superstar presence every time he walks into frame, completely commanding attention yet always finding a way to make his larger-than-life characters as relatable as can be. Tian Ji’an’s arc in The Assassin is one of astounding beauty — we witness a transformation of maturity unfold after every close encounter with death. The Assassin’s thematic emphasis on the preciousness of human life, family and duty resonate more from the nuanced performances than the often empty words spoken amongst the cast.
Yes, for all the artistic grandeur The Assassin has to offer, its laborious plot threatens to derail Hsiao-Hsien’s magnificent work. Immediately after the prologue, we’re basically tortured with an exposition-heavy sequence involving Ji’an and his inner council, whom are conducting a meeting that unnecessarily goes into prolonged detail about the politics and social strife governing the Weibo-Imperial Court conflict. These seemingly ancillary moments soon begin to dominate a large chunk of the film, so much so that we’re stripped of valuable time spent with our enigmatic heroine. A scene near the end of the film bookends the aforementioned council meeting by explicating events that we’ve already experienced firsthand. Did I come to watch a compelling film or sit in a classroom waiting for my teacher to tell us which page in the history textbook to turn to next? Those scenes certainly make one feel like they’re experiencing the latter. While The Assassin more than makes up for its less than enthralling moments, one can’t help but wonder why a master of cinema like Hsiao-Hsien would ever submit himself to such a conventional mode of storytelling.
Even with my script qualms, there’s no denying that Hsiao-Hsien deserved his “Best Director” prize from Cannes earlier this year. Moreover, I fully support Taiwan’s bid for a potential “Best Foreign Language” Oscar with The Assassin as its submission. As a lover of cinema that aesthetically stimulates, The Assassin is bar none one of the greatest of its kind. Its sumptuous beauty will stay with you for a long time, especially one particular shot near the end which could easily qualify as a cinematography all-timer (mountainside cliffs will never have quite as much imposing impact after this film). Well Go USA’s The Assassin makes its stateside debut in select theaters across New York and Los Angeles beginning today, October 16th, with a national rollout to follow.
Be sure to check out the trailer below for your viewing pleasure…