Sunday, October 18, 2015

Review: The Assassin

Image courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment.
Hou Hsiao Hsien's "The Assassin" was rapturously received at this year's Cannes Film Festival by a majority of film critics and the picture ended up nabbing the Best Director prize. While I liked the film, which is often visually stunning, I'm not exactly sure why it's being hailed as one of the highly lauded filmmaker's best - which I don't think it is - or how it is different than your average wu xia film, other than in purely structural terms.

For those unfamiliar with wu xia, it's a genre that tells martial arts stories and could be seen as China's version of the western. Films that could described as having wu xia elements include Ang Lee's groundbreaking "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" or Zhang Yimou's "House of Flying Daggers." What differentiates Hsien's film is that the director applies his highly recognizable visual style and cinematic rhythms, which typically involve long shots in which characters are merely dots in the landscape and laconic sequences in which characters' faces do more of the talking than their mouths.

In "The Assassin," a mostly speechless warrior named Yinniang (Qi Shu), who lives during the Tang Dynasty years, is sent by her master to assassinate a political rival who, as it turns out, was a childhood friend. Yinniang had been separated from her family as a young girl and trained to be a martial arts expert and her skill is seen early in the film during a black and white sequence when she attacks a man on horseback and promptly slits his throat.

While Hsien's slow pace often befits his dramas, such as the highly praised "The Puppetmaster" and the lovely "Three Times," which is still my favorite of his works, it occasionally causes "The Assassin" to drag a little. It's a good film, but more the type that I can appreciate for its style and technique than feel engaged by.

That being said, there are sequences of breathtaking beauty in the film, including one in which Yinniang speaks to her master on a misty mountain, another during which the mist threatens to engulf a lake and others of brightly colored fields and majestic mountaintops.

The story is a little difficult to follow and I'm glad to see that a majority of the notices on the film say the exact same thing. But as is often the case with one of Hsien's films, the mood and rhythm of the visuals frequently eclipse the story. That is certainly the case here and, for this type of film, such a style yields mixed results. I can objectively say that "The Assassin" is a good film and one that I'd recommend to fans of world cinema, but it didn't quite grab me the way that Hsien's best films - "Three Times" or "City of Sadness," for example - did.

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