Hou Hsiao-Hsien was awarded Best Director at this years’ Cannes Film Festival and The Assassin was an official selection at the New York and Toronto Film Festivals. The Assassin opens in limited release October 16th.
There are certain expectations that you form when a film is described to you. Whether it’s from a friend, a plot synopsis on IMDb, or a review like this one, you take what you are told and automatically add in your own thoughts of what the film should be like in order to justify yourself in either liking or not liking the film in question before you even enter the theater (or, nowadays, hit play on Netflix). Film has been around for a hundred years now and most of us, if we know it or not, are fully aware of what different movies should be like. If you’re told that a new film is a slasher flick, then you know to expect a whole lot of dead high school girls and a knife-wielding maniac. Romantic comedy – two people who are complete opposites meet and fall in love by the end of the film.
In his latest film, The Assassin, director Hou Hsiao-Hsien (Flight of the Red Balloon) begins the story of a young girl returning home to assassinate the province’s governor with a scene of violence. Under the order of her mentor, the girl (Hsaio-Hsien regular Shu Qi) deftly runs through the forest and slices the throat of a general passing on horseback without any of his soldiers noticing. This prologue sets the viewer up for an intense action kung-fu drama. The sequence being shown in black and white, however, keeps the rest of the film’s action a mystery.
The story begins in earnest with Shu Qi’s character being brought back to her family. The action, however, never truly forms after the promise of the opening scene. The film, instead, becomes a window into the lives of Ninth Century Chinese aristocrats. Switching to color, we see the ornate detail of the daily rituals of the late Tang Dynasty painstakingly recreated and patiently filmed. Hsai-Hsien keeps his camera at a distance during the entire film. Using long and methodical takes, the director not only showcases the extreme beauty of the Mongolian countryside but keeps the characters and action far away from the viewer. The few fight scenes that take place hold minimum screen time, the camera often panning away to different people’s reactions.
It is clear, then, that the fighting is simply an effect of the plot and that the characters and settings are the main focus of the film. The constant use of long shots and minimal dialogue, though, emphasizes setting over characters. The vast mountains and forests often dominate the screen, dwarfing the action. Not since Peter Jackson showcased the New Zealand terrain in the Lord of the Rings movies has vast green fields and forests surrounded by steep snow-covered peaks been so lovingly and beautifully captured on film.
Verdict: 4 out of 5
It takes great patience as a director to not jump to the expectations of the kung-fu genre but to use those tropes and manipulate them to tell a story that showcases the elegance and beauty of the period. It also takes great patience on the part of the viewer. With a running time of 104 minutes, The Assassin is not as drawn out as it often feels. Hsiao-Hsien has produced a work of art and it is often forgotten that cinema has that ability – to be art. With every other film going out of its way to blow up everything in sight, it’s humbling to be reminded of the beauty that film can produce; even if it is simply for beauty’s sake.