Arts Review, Movies
Hou Hsiao-Hsien, director
Chu Tien-wen, script
Starring: Shu Qi (Nie Yinniang, the assassin), Chang Chen (Tian Ji’an), Zhou Yun (Lady Tian), Fang Yi Sheu (Jiaxin)
The acclaimed veteran filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien deservedly won the best director prize at this year’s Cannes film festival for The Assassin, a gorgeous martial arts film set in 9th century China. Set in northern China and Mongolia, the locations are stunning as are the costumes and the music. In fact, everything in the film is so beautiful that it’s difficult to point out that this classic “wuxia” genre picture has a complex plot that is really hard to understand.
Here’s the broad outline. Nie Yinniang, a lovely young woman, was taken away from her parents, who are minor aristocrats and raised to be an assassin by the rogue nun Jiaxin. Before she left the court as an adolescent, she was betrothed to Tian Ji’an, who now is the ruler of Weibo, a province that has effectively seceded from the Chinese empire. Yinniang is sent by Jiaxin to assassinate Tian Ji’an, who is now married to the beautiful Lady Tian. But she can’t do it. Yinniang dithers for about as long as Hamlet but without the soliloquies. Instead there are brief, effective action scenes, which punctuate many languorous sequences in which Yinniang observes the court and her former fiancée in secret, from behind heavily laced screens or in secluded but sumptuous gardens.
Hou Hsiao-Hsien, who was the subject of a recent TIFF retrospective, which I, and many others, praised highly, has never made a genre picture before The Assassin. He’s made character studies and is great with mood and detail. But you would hardly think of him as a martial arts master. And he’s not.
What Hou has achieved is remarkable. He’s made a film about the character of an apparently enigmatic action hero(ine), who gradually reveals who she truly is as an individual. Shu Qi as the assassin is totally right for the part. She’s dressed literally to kill–in black, with purportedly cold eyes and an impassive demeanour, who shows herself to have the heart of a romantic.
Though two viewings of the film still left me wondering about details of its complicated courtroom plot, The Assassin is an amazing film to watch and enjoy. Ravishing to the eye, it is a film worth viewing—perhaps more than once.
Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus
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