Screenplay:Cheng Ah, T’ien-wen Chu, Hsiao-Hsien Hou, Hai-Meng Hsieh, Xing Pei
Producers: Yi-Qi Chen, Tai-Chiang Gou, Hsiao-Hsien Hou, Wen-Ying Huang, Peter Lam, Ching-Song Liao, Kuen Lin, Tzu-Hsien Tung
Starring: Qi Shu, Chen Chang, Satoshi Tsumabuki
Cinematographer – Ping Bin Lee
Country: Taiwan-China-Hong Kong
Duration: 107 mins
The recently concluded London Film Festival was as usual replete with some truly fantastic films in the programme, so when offered the opportunity to attend only one press screening, the choice was understandably traumatic. However, the film I selected to watch and review had a lot to going for it. For example, it was helmed by the Best Director winner at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, and is a wuxia film in the best possible tradition, telling the story of a martial arts hero in ancient China (my favourite period in that genre). It held promise of being a gem such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (another favourite I discovered at the 2000 LFF), complete with a key actor who appears in both films. With stakes this high, any disappointment could have proved fatal, but luckily The Assassin lived up to my lofty expectations, and even had the cheek to surpass it with a couple of delightful extras in my opinion.
First of all, the aforementioned hero is a female assassin named Nie Yinniang, (beautifully played by new comer & treasure, Shu Qi). Yinniang was abducted as a child by a group of killer Nuns who raised and trained her with the deadly skills of an assassin. They then sent her out to right wrongs by killing corrupt public figures and other members of that ilk. She is very good at her job, but on the one occasion where Yinniang displays compassion by not killing her target in front of his son, she is punished and sent back home. Her punishment; to kill the young governor of Weibo province who just happens to be her cousin and childhood sweetheart – they were actually betrothed to be married until her abduction. Suffice it to say that her inner strength and mercy triumphs and again she disobeys her masters and lets her ex-beau live, much to the chagrin of the Nuns.
The second flourish is evident in the brilliant cinematography and superb direction. Each scene and set piece is a veritable work of art, with additional help provided in Hsiao-Hsien Hou’s direction which deploys generous amounts of exquisite stillness in most scenes. These combined attributes make for a film that is arguably a masterpiece of slow quietness and sheer beauty, sometimes intersparsed with scintillating martial arts action which somehow manages to complement the pace and style of the film. Stillness, and I’m talking about scenes were the most animation may be found in a falling leaf or curling smoke, can either be a director’s most potent tool for achieving great commendation, (or equally great condemnation), and Hsiao-Hsien Hou demonstrates true mastery of the form.
Having said that, I sometimes struggled to piece together the somewhat convoluted storyline which wasn’t helped by occasional momentum draining stillness. Also, the film could have done with more martial arts moments, without risk of appearing too gratuitous. The fight scenes were dramatic and delectable, serving as a brilliant counterfoil to the oil-on-canvas stillness of both indoor and outdoor scenes. A perfect balance, in my opinion, and like most other things in this film it was a delight to watch and to review here.