|Film review: The Assassin
|Written by Ivan Radford
|Saturday, 23 January 2016 19:41
Director: Hou Hsiao-Hsien
There are martial arts movies and there are martial arts movies. The Assassin isn't either.
The film follows a trained killer, who has no problem dispatching targets. Then, one day, they flinch, after an assignment finds them face to face with a child. It's something that could be straight out of a Jason Bourne film, or another conventional blockbuster, except our killer is a young girl and our tale takes place in 7th-century China.
But even then, Hou Hsiao-Hsien doesn't follow the conventions you would expect from a wuxia film. Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou have presented the genre as an art form of quick, elegant action, but The Assassin is as slow and deliberate as the eight-year gap since the director's last film.
Following her failed mission, Yinniang (Shu Qi) is given another more challenging task: go back to her hometown to kill governor Tian Ji'an (Chang Chen), to whom she was once betrothed. Old passions! New wounds! Again you might expect something heated or charged, but again, The Assassin refuses to play ball. There's a constant sense of restraint underlying the whole affair - something that gives events a grounded, understated tone.
That's reinforced by Hsiao-Hsien's decision to shoot everything in what seems like 4:3 ratio - from the black-and-white opening presetend in a decidedly non-widescreen, this is arguably the least cinematic martial arts movie ever to grace the big screen. At times, the effect is almost like watching a documentary.
What unspools is a gradual revealing of corruption and emotional conflict, as other parties emerge with their own designs upon the governor's position. But beneath the quiet surface lies beauty in abundance: shots of misty lakes and silver forests feel all the more enchanting for their believable realism. The action, meanwhile, is all the more breathtaking: fights are not extravagant, operatic set pieces, but rather short, sharp bursts of violence. You've never seen martial arts like this. The Assassin is a showcase for stunning choreographed brutality, made brutally efficient; After all, Yinniang is so strong, would why she bother to string battles out?
The incredible Shu Qi is central to that powerful stillness. Through all of the confrontations, there no clunky, dramatic exchanges, which means she must convey her character's shifting feelings through movements rather than words. The result is challenging in its detachment, but engrossing in its mystery; an intoxicating gem precisely because it doesn't try to intoxicate. The only explicit insight into her turmoil comes from a conversation with her mentor (against a subtly gorgeous landscape). "Your skill is matchless," says her teacher. "But your mind is hostage to human sentiments." The first part is undoubtedly true.