The Assassin Is Too Stealthy to Engage

By  · Published on September 26th, 2015

Well Go USA

Read more of our Fantastic Fest 2015 coverage here.

Hsiao-Hsien Hou has long been one of world cinema’s most revered storytellers. His films are very sure-handed and some carry a calm stoicity about them. If anything, these are characteristics one would expect to make for a successful assassin. While there are moments of true, unquestionable beauty in Hou’s The Assassin, the surface-level unwillingness to emote and the pace of an injured snail becomes an ongoing chore for one to keep a keen, focused mind on what is happening throughout – and ultimately what is even resolved by the end.

Qi Shu stars as Nie Yinniang, the assassin of the title during the Tang-Dynasty era. At the age of ten Yinniang was abducted from her home and trained in the martial arts and assassination tactics. Years later, Yinniang, now a swordsman without equal, is sent on a mission back home following a foiled assignment for choosing to let her target live instead of killing him in front of his child. This next job marks her cousin, a man in charge of a powerful military, and the man she was to marry when the time came to do so in her past life. Showing the remorse to spare her prior mark she may experience a similar fate for one which she shares a bloodline and history.

There isn’t anything about Hou’s picture that could be described as conventional. As an action-drama it’s sparse in both areas. It’s an action film that has meticulous movement in pace and actor motion, and it’s a drama that appears to lack it almost altogether. Very little is expressed, and while the action set-pieces are intense, they’re very compact and end rather abruptly. I can’t even recall how often a fight concludes with a death beyond the first five minutes. The action climaxes are often skipped, and when they’re not it’s because there was not much of a climax to show. You can see that Yinniang is a superior swordsman, and sometimes it’s as if her opponents are okay stopping before they’re killed – resulting in a very common end-game of characters fighting, Yinniang committing what looks as a deadly blow with her blade, and yet then two very slowly walking away from one another.

Packaged with this lack of expressiveness and movement however is an opportunity to appreciate what may be some of the most visually appealing photography in film this year. Where it may lack motion it very much punctuates with highly picturesque scenes. It’s an oft-used compliment to a film’s cinematography when it’s said that any frame can be hung on a wall and appreciated, and I’ll have to apply it here. The camerawork is conservative and usually static with very few, if any, close-ups. It tends to aid that unfortunate emotional distance, but it’s also not so wide as to feel too grandiose beyond the intended intimacy with the cast of characters. I can’t tell if the visuals complement the quiet tone, or if the tone is created by it, but each scene has a serenity to it that feels at home in some of the classic Japanese cinema of Ozu – though absent Ozu’s gift to make solemness so affecting.

The Assassin is that rare breed of film I have no immediate interest in experiencing twice, but desperately wished I possessed the mental focus to do so. I gather there is something to this film that I lack the patience to appreciate in its storytelling, but I cannot for the life of me meditate on the occurrences like the film seems like it wants me to. I’m grateful that its imagery leaves the impressions that it does, because this would have otherwise been an experience best served with a glass of warm milk.

The Upside: Beautiful images from Ping Bin Lee (Hsiao-Hsien Hou’s long-time cinematographer); some unconventionally executed and filmed fight sequences

The Downside: A methodical pace that crosses the threshold into dulling territory, making it very difficult to focus on the story being told – especially when it seems like very little dialogue is spoken, and when it is there is not much emotion behind it

Read more of our Fantastic Fest 2015 coverage here.

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