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New Release Review - THE ASSASSIN

A young woman trained to kill is assigned the task of killing her cousin.



Review by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)

Directed by: Hsiao-Hsien Hou

Starring: Qi Shu, Chen Chang, Satoshi Tsumabuki



Watching The Assassin is like taking a childhood trip to your grandparents; you don't understand much of their speech and you're unsure of their rules, but the alien and archaic sensual delights are intoxicating.



Wuxia is a hugely popular genre in Asia cinema, a blending of often extravagant and outrageous martial arts with sumptuous period detail. For western audiences, the most recognisable entry will be Ang Lee's global hit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a sequel to which is set to debut on Netflix in the coming months. Elements of the genre also feature heavily in the animated Kung Fu Panda movies, whose third installment hits cinemas this year. A Vietnamese wuxia, Sword of the Assassin, arrives next month. It seems 2016 is set to be a breakout year for the genre, beginning with Taiwanese filmmaker Hsiao-Hsien Hou's critically acclaimed (it topped Sight & Sound's 2015 critics poll) foray, The Assassin.
Set in the 8th century in China's Weibo province, Hsiao-Hsien's film introduces us to Nie Yinniang (the beguiling and ethereal Shu Qi), a young woman taken from her home as a child and trained in the ways of political assassination by a mysterious nun. An opening segment, filmed in black and white on 16mm stock, shows Yinniang execute one such assignment before failing to complete another due to the presence of an infant in her target's arms. Displeased at her show of compassion, the nun sends Yinniang back to her home with orders to kill her cousin and childhood sweetheart Tian Ji'an (Chang Chen), now a powerful provincial governer.
Hsiao-Hsien's previous, mostly contemporary set, slow paced dramas couldn't be further removed from the heightened fantasy of the wuxia genre, and as such The Assassin is unlike most previous examples of the form, placing more emphasis on mood, tone and atmosphere than acrobatic action. The director makes as few concessions to the genre as he does to plotting. The Assassin is essentially a very simple story of a professional killer growing a conscience, an archetype we've seen in everything from 1958's noir masterpiece Murder By Contract to this very month's Australian indie Partisan. There is however much discussion of 8th century provincial Chinese politics, which, as an ignorant westerner, left me adrift.
Watching The Assassin is like taking a childhood trip to your grandparents; you don't understand much of their speech and you're unsure of their rules, but the alien and archaic sensual delights are intoxicating. In the case of Hsiao-Hsien's film, I felt like a little boy snooping in his grandmother's room. It may be directed by a male filmmaker, but The Assassin is as feminine a piece of cinema as you could imagine, set in a world where the men are in power but the women pull the strings. The male characters are so dumb and ignorant it borders on misandry, swatted away like flies by Yinniang whenever they attack. Wives fight for their deluded husband's honour, and the decor of the sets tells you this is a world designed by women.
The lack of action will likely be a turn off for many devotees of this style of Asian storytelling, but what action we do get is thrilling, if teasingly brief, and it catches us unaware every time, exploding like a mischievous kid's balloon. Mark Lee Ping Bin's cinematography is breathtaking, filling the screen with more colour than a jar of M&Ms.
I have to confess when it came to the intricacies of this film's plot, I was generally left at sea, and it took a long time for me to figure out the relationships between the various characters, but none of this had a negative effect on my enjoyment. The Assassin is a film that sucks you into its world like few fantasies can, one that makes you feel like a voyeuristic intruder. The fear of capture is, in this case, a rarely matched thrill.
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