Director: Hsiao-Hsien Hou
Cast: Qi Shu, Chen Chang and Satoshi Tsumabuki
Running Time: 105 minutes
Release Date: January 2nd
Whenever Quentin Tarantino re-emerges from the woodwork, you can bet there will be a swathe of cultural commentators scuttling up behind him, still harping on about how showing on-screen violence might, this time herald the downfall of civilized society. Right now, with The Hateful Eight, and Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s The Revenant doing the rounds, it would appear that, once again the apocalypse looms according to the critics. As a result, it is a relief to see a film, such as The Assassin coming out at the same time, since it is indeed also about senseless murder, but strives to transcend the cruelty by exploring the consequences of such acts.
The first feature-length film by Taiwanese art-house director Hou Hsiao-Hsien in eight years, and his eighteenth in total, The Assassin is a wuxia martial arts epic, which draws a certain parallel with the slow-burning puppet-master cruelty of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives. However, whereas Refn opted to feature no character who was even a notch below psychopathic, Hou decides to dissect his cold blooded killers, in order to hence, detect a trace of warmth in the hands clasping each blade.
Set in the 8th Century, the story plays out in the province of Weibo, as its local government is determined to break away from the court of the Tang Dynasty. However, the real threat to emerge during the schism is not actually the Imperial army, but rather a mysterious young woman named Yinniang, whose life is dedicated to assassinating corrupt government officials. Trained by a princess-nun, known as Jiaxin, we learn during the film’s cold opening that Jiaxin has sculpted Yinnian into a ferocious murderer, whose swordsmanship is unparalleled in the region. Striking like a kingfisher, she is swift and almost invisible when hunting down targets. But unfortunately, her gift is compromised by a lingering sense of empathy, and this, Jiaxin needs to eradicate.
Yinniang’s emotional conflict comes to the forefront in the earliest moments of the film as she aborts one of her missions, because the target’s son is present at the scene. In sparing the man his life, Jiaxin finds it necessary to punish Yinniang by demanding she kill her cousin, Tian J’ian, the military governor of Weibo. Once arranged to be married, the pair were prevented from doing so when Jiaxin abducted Yinniang at the age of thirteen. The final trace of love in Yinniang’s life, this is the test to determine whether or not she can step over humanity and transition into an emotionless executioner, whose every action follows Jiaxin’s command.
Told through nuanced facial expressions, opaque Pinter-esque dialogue and heavily contrasted colour schemes The Assassin is an impressionistic work of visual poetry. The story reveals itself not by what is said, but what is seen, be it the distance between certain characters, how a conflict within a forest is framed, or, what type of clothes s person is wearing. This is not a standard piece of action cinema, and it may test your patience at times given its immensely slow pacing. However, for those who are willing to give The Assassin a chance, then the investment will likely pay off and have you running to see what else this maverick has to offer in his vast back catalogue.