The Assassin, 2015.
Directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien.
Starring Qi Shu, Chen Chang, Satoshi Tsumabuki, Shao-Huai Chang and Yun Zhou.
An assassin accepts a dangerous mission to kill a political leader in seventh-century China.
Almost immediately, as the first shots in stark black and white open on-screen, it’s not a stretch to say that The Assassin is one of the most beautiful and intricately designed films of recent years. Every shot, movement, colour and clash of swords is meticulous in its composition and execution, providing some moments of perpetual tranquility and peace while still bursting with energy once the fighting begins, beautifully orchestrated and composed as Qi Shu and Chen Chang, amongst others, come to blows.
The Assassin takes place in 7th Century China, with 10-year-old Yinniang (Shu) is swiftly taken from her home by a nun who begins to train her in formidable martial arts to become a deadly assassin. Subsequently ordered to kill those whose corrupt the status quo, Yinniang soon begins to question her orders when her latest assignment sends her back to her birthplace, and to Tian Ji’an (Chang), a man who she was promised to years prior, and who she still loves deeply.
While this may lead many to be excited by the promise of wall-to-wall martial arts set-pieces, The Assassin is much more than that. Elegant and precise, it’s film-making of the highest order not least for Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s award-winning direction. Form and detail are the weapons of choice here, choosing slow lingering shots of stunning forests, beautiful design sets and the breathtaking landscapes that ensconse them. Superbly realised by his art department, headed by cinematographer Ping Bin Lee and art director Ding-Yang Weng, with one sequence in particular, as Yinniang’s sensei looks out across the mountain tops as the clouds start to form thicker and thicker, billowing across the screen to fill it entirely is one of the most exquisite shots you may ever see.
For all the endeavours that are put on-screen however you can’t shake a nagging feeling that the film lacks a true purpose, an engaging plot that sits delicately with its wonder. Hou has said that plot isn’t really needed, but while his flair is unequivocal, The Assassin falls short of true brilliance because of its almost structureless story that at times can feel a little dull. But such is the potency of everything else, that such things will drift away like the beautifully realised mountain sequence.
Undoubtedly one of the most exquisite films you could ever wish to see, The Assassin is a triumph of craftsmanship, ingenuity and cinema at its most potent and beautiful. Directed with care and attention by Hou, meticulously using every second of film to create something visually bold and breathless. You’ll just wish there was as much potency to the story as there is in the artistry.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Scott J. Davis is Senior Staff Writer at Flickering Myth, and co-host and editor of The Flickering Myth Review Podcast. Follow him on Twitter.