By Cleaver Patterson.
In 8th century, Tang Dynasty China, Nie Yinniang (Qi Shu) has lived for many years, isolated from her family in a remote temple, where she has been trained in martial arts, becoming one of the country’s most feared assassins. Only when she is sent by her teacher to kill Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen), the military leader of a remote province in northern China – who just happens to be her cousin to whom she was also once betrothed – does Nie Yinniang begin to question the validity of her supposed calling in life.
Taiwan’s official entry for the 2015 foreign-language Oscar is a film which, upon initial viewing, could be seen as something of a disappointment. Having been nominated for, and won, numerous film festival awards including several at the Venice Film Festival, as well as being highly praised by a number of well respected film publications, you would be forgiven for expecting much more from it. However, though undeniably stunning to watch, the film is ultimately a difficult, perhaps even testing, viewing experience.
The problem with The Assassin lies with the story at its core. Dealing as it does with the complex motives behind Nie Yinniang’s actions and choices, as well as the politics of early, regional China, it is frequently difficult to follow, leaving the viewer perplexed throughout. The film takes its essence from the 9th century martial arts story “Nie Yinniang” by Pei Xing – a text central to the art of Chinese swordsmanship and wuxia (martial arts) fiction. However, considering martial arts lie at the film’s heart there is actually surprisingly little on display. Also, when the fight sequences do come they are remarkable restrained in light of what we are used to seeing in well known film’s of the genre such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). This sense of restraint unfortunately also follows through to the performances of the main cast, none of which stand out as particularly arresting – though as Chinese culture is often depicted as more outwardly undemonstrative than its western counterpart, this might in fact be realistic.
The overriding sense one takes from the film as a whole however is that of ponderosity, with great swathes of the story playing out on screen as though the filmmakers were in no great rush to get anywhere. But, where this could be seen as detrimental in many films, the languid approach the film’s director Hou Hsiao-Hsien has taken with his work here, plays in its favour: considering the film’s main attraction is its sumptuous visuals, the unhurried take with many scenes, allows the viewer to loose themselves in their mesmerising, dreamlike qualities. A placid lake sits beneath majestic mountains, etched in shades of blue and green, the tranquility of the scene broken only by flocks of birds rising through the early morning mists. Wooden houses huddle on the edges of forests seemingly oblivious to the world around them. And that’s it. Some of the scenes in which these beautiful images appears contain nothing else, allowing the camera to focus on, or slowly pan the area, before passing on to some new and equally arresting image.
Just as hypnotic is the film’s depiction of life amongst the aristocratic characters that people it, and around whom its action revolves. Their homes are so sumptuously appointed that the people who live there, though just as ornately dressed, are almost lost to the eye. It’s only when they venture outside, that their period costumes – for which production designer / art director Wen-Ying Huang won the Golden Horse Award for ‘Best Makeup & Costume Design’ at Taiwan’s Golden Horse Film Festival – really come alive against a backdrop of green pastures and silver birch forests.
Interestingly the film opens, pre-credits, in black and white, before transforming as it does into the vivid palette of jewel-like brights, and muted earthy hues which saturate the remainder of the proceedings. Quite why it chooses this approach is unclear as it adds little to the film’s overall narrative, other than to separate the section which explains the reasons behind Nie Yinniang’s path from the main body of the piece. It also serves to highlight the cliff-side temple where a nun called Jiaxin – Nie Yinniang’s mentor and trainer in martial arts – lives in isolated splendour.
Hun himself is quoted as saying that audiences, particularly those with more western sensibilities where film viewing is concerned, are unlikely to understand The Assassin, unless viewed at least twice or even three times – which may go some way to calming the fears of those who will possibly feel they have been missing something. If however you believe that one viewing of the film is adequate, at least you can come away with the satisfaction that you have treated your visual senses to an experience of rare beauty, seldom seen on the big screen.
Cleaver Patterson is a film journalist and critic based in London. He is the News Editor of Flickfeast website, and regularly writes for various publications and websites including Video Watchdog, Rue Morgue and Film International. He recently contributed to the book 70s Monster Memories, published by We Belong Dead magazine in December, 2015.
The Assassin received a limited release in the USA in October 2015. It screened at the London Film Festival in October 2015, and will open in the UK on 22nd January, 2016.