DIR: Hsiao-Hsien Hou • WRI: Cheng Ah, T’ien-wen Chu, Hsiao-Hsien Hou, Hai-Meng Hsieh • PRO: Wen-Ying Huang, Peter Lam, Ching-Song Liao • DOP: Ping Bin Lee • ED: Chih-Chia Huang, Ching-Song Liao • DES: JWen-Ying Huang • MUS: Giong Lim • CAST: Qi Shu, Chen Chang, Satoshi Tsumabuki

Set in 8th century China during the Tang Dynasty, The Assassin follows the story of a woman named Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), a highly-skilled and talented killer. It emerges over the course of the film that she was kidnapped as a young girl and subsequently trained to be an assassin. However, Yinniang is turned away from her master, a nun named Jiaxin, when she refuses to kill a target in the presence of his family. Now she must prove her worth by taking out another target, military governor Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen), who happens to be Yinniang’s cousin, and who she was once betrothed to. The target resides in the province Yinniang once called home, Weibo, where peace is under threat arising from Tian’s desire for war and expansion.

The film is loosely adapted from a late 9th century martial arts and wuxia fiction story by Pei Xing. The titular character, played by a stunning Shu Qi, brings a deep intensity to the role, her eyes and face set, determined and fierce. At the same time, when her objective becomes less resolute, Qi subtly indicates these character changes without a need for the extraction of dialogue. As Lord Tian, Chang Chen is also alluring to watch in his role. His face will be familiar to Western audiences following his role in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon as the lover of Zhang Ziyi’s character, known as ‘Dark Cloud’, and he also starred in Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046.

There are some truly beautiful moments in The Assassin, such as when the titular character hides from her victim and stalks him behind a narrow, colourful curtain. Initially in black-and-white before bursting into colour (think Kill Bill rather than The Wizard of Oz), and utilising enigmatic fade-outs in between scenes, director Hsiao-Hsien Hou accomplishes a distinct look and style in his feature that goes a long way for explaining his win as Best Director at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.

For this feature, the plot is far less important than the visuals. Slow and contemplative, there are several moments in the film in which essentially nothing happens. This can be quite frustrating if one was expecting an action-filled martial arts film. With a title like The Assassin, in fairness, one may feel a little deceived that what is actually on offer here is not an action movie but an arthouse film, although of course one could argue that if the film won an award at Cannes, it was hardly going to be a mainstream feature.

Deirdre Molumby

105 minutes (See IFCO for details)

The Assassin is released 22nd January 2016


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