Film review: The Assassin

Any hint of a wuxia movie makes dad’s film antennae stand right up. Hailing from Malaysia, he was brought up on a diet of Hong Kong martial arts movies and there were many fond memories of family trips out to the latest Jackie Chan blockbuster

It was nice to see this genre of movie break through into the western mainstream with Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Tiger in 2000. Dad remembers the spontaneous applause that broke out in the cinema after the first martial fight scene in Crouching Tiger. Other than the action sequences which put the Hollywood attempts into the shade, it introduced well-trodden eastern movie themes such as duty and unrequited love to western audiences

Films such as Heroes and House of Flying Daggers continued those trends and introduced gorgeous landscapes and amazing cinematography into the mix. So, The Assassin had many things in common with these trailblazers and having featured at many film festivals including Cannes and garnered generous critical acclaim, would director Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s ‘heart-stoppingly beautiful’ movie count as a classic in dad’s book?

First off, he would like to repeat the warning he heard on the Film 2016 program on TV that The Assassin isn’t a martial arts movie. Despite the promise dangled in the trailer above, the fighting sequences aren’t the focus. They’re short or filmed from odd angles (one fight takes place behind a whole row of trees) or seem to make no sense. Indeed, it’s hard to tell who the winner was or whether anyone won at all. Dad was disappointed with the action – there are other facets to enjoy in wuxia movies but dad likes the payoff of some well choreographed fight sequences

 So, what are we left with? The film is set in 9th century China when the Imperial Court is starting to lose its hold over the huge kingdom and has set up a series of military strongholds along its border to consolidate its position. The film takes place in Weibo, the strongest of these and centres around the governor, Tian Ji’an played by Chang Chen

 There’s a lot of politics in this film and if verbal sparring could replace those missing action sequences, the film would do fine. These machinations result in the banishment of one of the court advisers with side plots into witchcraft, shenanigans with chicken blood and matching pieces of jade

So, what of the assassin, I hear you cry. Well, dad says that he deliberately left her role in this review til now because it reflects her role in the film, which feels strangely peripheral for large swathes of it. Shu Qi’s portrayal of the eponymous assassin Nie Yinniang is quietly brooding, masking a menacing and killing ability but with possible unseen and unknown painful training to reach that level of brutal efficiency


The film opens in black and white with Yinniang receiving final instructions from nun Jiaxin, who has been her mentor and master since Yinniang was taken from her home at age 10. We get a glimpse of her assassination skills in that opening before the film evolves into colour though Yinniang and Jiaxin remain in black and white costumes throughout the film, perhaps reflecting how assassins and their leaders have to view the world with the work they’re involved in

Yinniang’s role is to remove those disloyal to the Imperial Court and when she falters in one job due to the presence of the intended target’s young child, she is dispatched by Jiaxin to kill the governor of Weibo to learn that there can be no compassion in this job. Through other devices, we learn that Yinniang was once betrothed to her target in order to bring peace between Weibo and the Imperial Court

It’s at this point that she disappears from the movie and despite reading reviews since watching the movie to clear his befuddlement, dad still remains unclear of some of the plot, who the woman in the golden mask was and most frustratingly, the motivation of Yinniang herself, probably we never get to see what happened in those crucial years of her training

The movie ends with a final meeting between Yinniang  and her mentor on a foggy mountaintop (de rigueur for this kind of movie). She is branded a failure and leaves, possibly sacked or possibly resigning from her job. She is told that her sword is the sharpest but that she is too compassionate, no doubt meant to be a ringing insult to an assassin. Jiaxin attempts to kill her during her descent and is easily defeated by Yinniang, who continues on her way. Perhaps, dad’s most enjoyable moment was the look on the nun’s face on realising that it is this much maligned compassion, which has stopped Yinniang from killing her

Is the film beautiful. In parts, undoubtedly yes. Dad says you’ll see the most beautiful close up shot of flickering coals and fire from a campsite but there aren’t the expansive vistas you’ll find in previous wuxia movies

Dad quite happily admits he’s a bit of a heathen when it comes to art house movies and unfortunately, The Assassin didn’t float his boat


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