The Assassin (Review)
aka 刺客聶隱娘 aka Nie yin niang
Written by Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Chu Tien-wen, Hsieh Hai-Meng, and Zhong Acheng
Based on a story by Pei Xing
Directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien
The Assassin is a great film that will bore the living crap out a whole bunch of people thinking they’re going to see something that it’s not. It’s one of those films that makes me feel like a bad movie review website guy because it should be a film I’m jazzed for, but I just don’t really have strong feelings for it. I’ve even seen some of director Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s other work, thanks to a particularly well-stocked Blockbuster that had Millennium Mambo (great!) and Flowers of Shanghai (greater!). This was before I moved to an area with great independent video stores, and also way before movies became easy to find on the internet, but that’s a whole different topic! But that meant The Assassin should have been right up my alley. And yet, I never really connected with it.
The Assassin has beautiful cinematography, some of the best I’ve seen in a long time. If anything the cinematography is too beautiful, every shot of the landscape looks out of a storybook, it’s a wonder how anything was ever done in 9th century China as everywhere people looked they would just see beautiful landscapes and spend all their time admiring them. The plot is steeped in historical characters as the story is literally dropped in the middle of actual history. I don’t know if Shu Qi’s character actually existed, but much of the rest of the characters are actual historical figures. Historical spoiler alert, Tian Xing, the guy who is exiled, will eventually have Tian Ji’an’s job. If anything, The Assassin got me to read up more on Chinese history, something I hadn’t done as much as I would have liked before.
Shu Qi is Nie Yinniang, a member of the ruling class in a part of old China known as the Weibo Circuit. She was at one point betrothed to the ruling military governor, but after some political drama was sent away to train under an assassin. It is here where we see her first fail to kill a target because she hasn’t expunged all her human feelings. Her master sends her back home with the order to kill her former betrothed. But can she kill the military governor – both can she get access to him and can she actually do the deed when the time comes. Military governor Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen) has his own drama, between his wife Lady Tian’s (Zhou Yun) conspiring and his concubine Huji’s (Nikki Hsieh Hsin-Ying) attempts to hide her pregnancy, and his exiling of Tian Xing (Lei Zhenyu) for giving conflicting advice in a manner he found rude.
The deliberate slow styling lets you seep it all in. Every shot is deliberate. Every slow, methodical bit of the scenes, of characters standing in the environment, of lingering shots on their faces as they react and continue to react to events. Every bit works together as part of a larger whole, creating a living world. Shu Qi’s face as she hears of her mother’s continual making of clothes for her after she was sent away, clothes she now receives upon her return but her mother didn’t live to see, speak volumes that lines of dialogue could not.
There are action sequences, including a neat one where a party is ambushed and most of the guards last about as long as you’d expect from people actually ambushed, except one guy who happened to be away at the creek and ends up putting up more of a fight before Nie Yinniang comes to their rescue. Much of the action is steeped in realism, with characters running around confused and getting tired. But this is an art movie, the action scenes aren’t the focus, they’re just a bonus.
Yet things don’t come together. Nie Yinniang’s ultimate actions seem ineffective at best. Sure, she saved some people, including her father, but after that the film sort of shambles along instead of coming to some sort of grand conclusion. In fact, some of the suspense is ruined by this being an actual historical piece, as it’s quite easy to look up when a character died and see what happened (assuming the film doesn’t go all alternate universe on us!)
I can see the arguments for this film being great. It’s a movie made to be beautiful, a true practitioner of the “every frame a painting” mindset. But it just doesn’t click for me. It’s certainly not a bad film and I don’t think I wasted my time watching it, but I don’t think I’ll ever bother with it again. I don’t think I’ll be recommending it to people unless they are already fans of Taiwanese New Wave, so they’ll go in with the proper expectations. Disappointed because I thought it would be way more interesting is the worst kind of disappointed.
Rated 6/10 (heir, moonshot, mountainshot, mask, father, needs more beard)
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