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.
The Assassin is not the film you’re expecting it to be. In that way, many will be disappointed. It’s not Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and it’s not The House of Flying Daggers. But, that isn’t to say that it’s a bad film, there are a lot worst out there. It’s just…it’s not easy to digest. The director himself has said it could take multiple viewings of the film to understand it. And once you’ve sat through it, you can certainly understand that.
The thing is that The Assassin is a very slow and very deliberate film. Everything in it is done for a reason, even if that reason isn’t at all clear. Shots are composed almost like paintings, barely moving through lavish sets and landscapes, the sound seems just a bit too quiet, as if we’re not supposed to be listening to these conversations and making you jolt in your seat with every burst of violence.
The film itself follows Yinniang, an assassin with amazing skills – the film opens with her killing someone on horseback and it takes us a few seconds to even realise what’s happened. But, on her next mission, she refuses to kill her target in the presence of his children. At the sign of this weakness, her master gives her a new mission – kill her cousin, Tian Ji’an, who now commands one of the largest armies in North China. What follows is a pretty basic moral dilemma: kill a man she loves or leave her life as an assassin behind.
And, to be honest, that’s all you’ll be able to follow. The Assassin assumes a lot of knowledge about the history and politics of China that you just won’t know – it’s like jumping into Game of Thrones towards the end of a season and being refused explanations as to why anything’s happening.
It goes from scene to scene of characters the film assumes we know about discussing characters and events you can’t recall even seeing.
Even if you’re paying attention, things are bound to slip through the net due to the slow pacing of the scenes, with many a long pause and very little dialogue over the course of the film. Even when the beautifully choreographed fight scenes do take place, it’s difficult to keep track of whose side we’re meant to be on, apart from Yinniang, of course.
Sometimes, it gets to the point where the characters themselves aren’t really sure what’s going on and they don’t seem to care, either. One scene in particular involves a character being killed almost immediately after we see him. He appears earlier in the film, with a brief explanation of who he is – but that doesn’t matter, because he’s dead now and he’s one less character to worry about.
One thing that will hopefully grab your attention is the cinematography. Filmed in 35mm and the unusual aspect ratio of 1:41:1, which sometimes slowly expands to fill the frame, it’s easy to see why The Assassin won the prize for Best Director at Cannes earlier this year.
The deliberation of each shot, which takes its time as it pan through long takes of hallways, living quarters and forests, are regularly breathtaking. So it’s a shame that sometimes the camera work on the spectacular fight scenes isn’t as careful, sometimes straying a bit too close to ‘quick cut / shaky cam’ at times. Understandably, it’s supposed to increase the tension and keep us interested, but it seems a waste when everything else on-screen looks so good.
At just over two hours, it does seem like twice that at times, but your attention is always grabbed by something, even if it’s a sound effect or a single shot, rather than any plot developments.
In the end, The Assassin is certainly not a film for everyone. Some will think it’s a masterpiece, some will find it a bore. It needs you to put in the effort in and will probably get better with each re-watch. But, unfortunately, first impressions are everything.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★