The Assassin (12A) | Close-Up FIlm Review

The Assassin,

Dir. Hsiao-Hsien Hou, China/Taiwan, 2015, 106 mins, in Mandarin with subtitles.

Cast: Qi Shu, Chen Chang, Satoshi Tsumabuki, Shao-Huai Chang, Hsieh Hsin-Ying, Juan Ching-Tian

A Chinese martial arts film like no other, The Assassin burns slowly and beautifully.

It’s Tang Dynasty China, circa 850 AD. Young, female assassin Nie Yinniang (Shu) refuses to go through with the killing of a man with young children.

Her mentor, a quietly vicious Buddhist nun, sends her on a mission that will test her usually steely resolve: she is to go back to her homeland and kill her kissing cousin – a man to whom she was once betrothed.

Arthouse meets kickass here: but don’t come expecting much in the way of action and big fights. Hsiao-Hsien Hou is arguaby the most respected Chinese ‘auteur’ film maker in the world today and his signature long takes and stately framed shots without close ups are what this film is all about.

Even more notable than the lack of action – the fights are over fast, which I suppose speaks volumes about how good a killer Nie Yinniang can be – is the lavish look and feel of the film. ‘Slow cinema’ as we know it tends to focus on grimy lives and desperate situations, but here it is definitely in imperial mode, full of long, calm sequences in rich, dark interiors and only a few bleached out landscape shots.

I’m not convinced that every cinema that shows The Assassin will do justice to its painstaking look. The low contrast and low resolution of (most) digital projection means that the burnished, shadowy look of much of the film may just turn out murky.

Increasingly, I find this a problem: you know a film is meant to look great but it just looks a bit ‘lost in projection’. You may end up intuiting what the film maker is trying to do without being able to enjoy it visually as much as you should. So, don’t despair if you catch up with The Assassin on Blu-ray on a hi-definition tv.

There’s no denying that The Assassin is a beautiful film but it is also very slow with the camera holding off at a distance to disengage the viewer. Given the subject matter, there’s a perversity at work in this kind of monumentality, although it is worth noting how much classic wuxia films (I’m watching A Touch of Zen at the moment) indulge in similar slow grandstanding.

A beautiful genre perversion or a needless upscaling of the martial arts film?

Review by Colin Dibben