Hou Hsiao-Hsien | 105 mins | Blu-ray | 1.40:1 + 1.85:1 | Taiwan, China, Hong Kong & France / Mandarin | 12
The Assassin is a martial arts drama about Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), a woman trained since childhood to be a highly-skilled assassin. When her emotions lead her to renege on a mission, her master sets a difficult task for Yinniang to prove herself: she must return to her homeland and assassinate its leader, Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen) — her cousin, to whom she was once betrothed.
The Assassin is also a Palme d’Or nominee, winner of Best Director at Cannes, a BAFTA nominee for Best Film Not in the English Language, and Sight & Sound’s critics’ poll winner for the best film of 2015.
If those paragraphs sound somewhat incompatible, it’s because they kinda are. Has the artier side of the film appreciation world gone genre mad? In short, no. If you take those two paragraphs at face value — martial arts flick vs. Sight & Sound poll-topper — then The Assassin is more befitting of the latter. It’s a slow film, that revels in shots of the countryside or people sat waiting. The backstory is told in infodumps (at least, that’s what we’d flag them as in ‘lesser’ films), while the present narrative comes in dialogue about political intricacies or the looks people give each other at certain times.
So little happens at times that it’s very easy to become disconnected from it. At one point my mind wandered to other films it reminded me of. Ashes of Time, for instance, which was an arthouse-bent martial arts movie that I really liked. Also, oddly enough, The Wolverine. I wondered how and why that film seemed to have been so quickly forgotten, concluding it wasn’t just because it’s not as memorably great as the finest X-Men films, but also because it wasn’t as memorably bad as The Last Stand or X-Men Origins; and therefore that that was pretty unfair, because shouldn’t the fact it’s better (quite a bit better) than those two mean it comes up more often; and— wait, what were we meant to be talking about? Oh yes, this calming scenery shot, which hasn’t ended yet.
The cinematography is certainly pretty — we’re all agreed on that. Framing it in more-or-less Academy ratio (apparently the ratio shifts slightly from shot to shot, but you’d have to be some kind of wunderkind obsessive to even notice that) is an uncommon choice, but not an unprecedented or unattractive one. However, the choice of ratio is brought to our attention by the inclusion of one scene in widescreen, especially as it’s difficult to see what purpose this serves. It’s not a scenery shot or an action sequence, the kind of things that might benefit from a wider canvas, but someone singing a song in flashback. Maybe it’s simply to differentiate that it is a flashback? That seems a pretty shallow reason for such an extravagance as completely switching aspect ratio, though.
For all that, there is some action, but director Hou Hsiao-Hsien has said he’s more concerned about the before and after of a fight than the process itself — it’s about the mood, the tension, the ultimate outcome of winning or losing, rather than the choreography of the combat — so there’s a lot of build-up for very brief bursts of action. That’s certainly not an invalid way to handle it — it’s Leone-esque, in its way — but it does mean anyone looking for the detailed swordplay or fisticuffs you expect of a martial arts film will come away disappointed.
The Assassin is far from your typical martial arts film, and so will appeal to a different kind of viewer. Hou has said it’s more about the spirit and deeper meanings of martial arts than it is the physical combat, and I can only presume that’s true. Besides looking very pretty, and presenting a (barely explained) adjustment in the mentality of one character, it’s difficult to know what to take away from it.