The Assassin, 2015.
Directed by Hsiao-Hsien Hou.
Starring Qi Shu, Chen Chang and Satoshi Tsumabuki.
An assassin in 7th century China accepts a mission to kill a political leader.
Arthouse martial arts is a problematic concept. On the one hand, ‘arthouse’ suggests serious, high-minded fare; on the other, ‘martial arts’ conjures up thoughts of excitement, fast-paced action, perhaps a touch of kitsch. The trickiness of melding these two very different types of film ultimately isn’t The Assassin’s problem – director Hou Hsiao-Hsien successfully bridges the gap, in what is a gorgeous-looking, obviously meticulously prepared project. One film style is allowed to inform the other, with the film’s quieter, sober moments adopting a campy fantasy quality, and the fight scenes taking on an artful craft rarely seen in martial arts movies. Or, for that matter, cinema in general.
The issue with The Assassin is that style would appear to be the whole focus. Hou’s ambitious undertaking, eight years in the making, uses its script as a placeholder. The story has been adapted from a centuries-old wuxia tale, and concerns 9th century assassin Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi) tasked with killing her cousin and former fiancé, and now military governor of Weibo province. For Western viewers some of this story, with its Chinese symbolism and Tang Dynasty politics, will prove confusing, while the supernatural element that’s casually introduced in the third act might seem incongruous. For viewers of any nationality, though, The Assassin is quite simply insubstantial.
As art, as a collection of images that are individually marvellous, The Assassin is a masterpiece. Colours complement one another beautifully, in the lustrous period design, and in the shots captured in the Chinese and Mongolian country; it’s as though Hou took a paint brush to the landscapes themselves. As a story the film is much less, while the characters have hardly any ‘character’ at all. Appropriately, the mythical assassin of the title is mysterious – but so is every other figure in the film. Everyone’s so underwritten that there’s no knowing who they are or how they really feel, leaving any exchanges of dialogue feeling hollow.
The fight scenes thankfully are as spectacular as the drama is flat. They come from nowhere, too, with Hou approaching them like horror movie jump-scares, jump-cutting from serene shots of scenery or dull dialogue scenes to a battler crashing through a barn door or Nie cutting down enemy guards. Pity these are so infrequent, because the choreography is perfect, combatants moving with an economy of movement that the rest of this glacially-paced film would have been wise to emulate. For those who are impressed by exquisite imagery alone, The Assassin will do just fine. For everyone else, it might feel a bit like watching particularly pretty colours of paint dry.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Brogan Morris – Lover of film, writer of words, pretentious beyond belief. Thinks Scorsese and Kubrick are the kings of cinema, but PT Anderson and David Fincher are the young princes. Follow Brogan on Twitter if you can take shameless self-promotion.