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    The Assassin (2015): Movie Review

    "A soft-spoken tale of a killer with a heart.”  

    Shu Qi plays the eponymous killer in The Assassin, Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s first martial arts film and Taiwan’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards. Inspired from the Tang Dynasty writer Pei Xing’s story called “Nie Yinniang,” the film forgoes lengthy physical calisthenics to give more emphasis on character study of a trained executioner whose heart gets in the way of her missions. 

    The film is set in 9th century China where the Imperial Court and the Weibo military province co-exist in an uneasy balance of power. Here we meet the female protagonist, Nie Yinniang (Shu), an efficient killing machine who was abducted from her family at the age of 10 by “princess-nun” Jiaxin (Sheung Fang-yi) and trained in the various arts of murder, particularly targeting corrupt officials. In one sequence, Yinniang swiftly and cleanly performs the job of slitting the throat of a man on horseback. However, Yinniang has a soft heart and so when she is about to kill a governor, she backs down, moved by the presence of his young son. Disappointed, Jiaxin punishes Yinniang by sending her to her home town to assassinate Lord Tian (Chang Chen).

    Meanwhile, things are not looking good in Weibo, one of the country’s largest and strongest mainland provinces. Political landscape is chaotic and after a heated discussion in an assembly, Lord Tian banishes from Weibo the young outspoken councillor Xia Jing (Juan Ching-tian). His personal life is as problematic because his favorite concubine, Huji (Hsieh Hsin-ying), is hiding her pregnancy which he later learns when a white-bearded sorcerer threatens her life. Worse, Yinniang comes back as a vision of a beautiful assassin in black who attempts on his life. Unknown to the people of Weibo, Lord Tian and Yinniang were once betrothed, before Yinniang was taken away and Tian was given to another girl, a marriage that would have brought lasting peace between his court and the province. 

    The Assassin is an art film, one with a straightforward and heart-warming narrative executed with fluid dynamics, elaborate plot twists and impressive costume and production designs. Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s approach is idiosyncratic as the story revolves mainly around the titular “heroine.” The movie is slow-burning in a distinctive and graceful manner. Instead of employing flashbacks and cramming the narrative with subplots, the characters tell the story directly. It may sound dull but the implementation, alternating between long pauses and self-absorbing recounting, is strikingly mesmerizing. Ironically, the dialogues are minimal, particularly by the lead figure but the emotions transmitted through the eyes and gestures are clear and vivid. Aside from confusing names, the entire plot and characters are also quite hard to follow. Hence, keen senses and attention to details are needed to elucidate ambiguities and grasp the poetic nature of the feature. The film also has a general air of pensiveness and timidity and once again, patient viewing is a must.

    For those who expect extensive breathtaking air-borne fight sequences, the present film will disappoint you. It defies conventions of martial arts film and instead, it presents its fight scenes in the briefest and most matter-of-factly way like during Yinniang’s first kill in the movie. Like a swooping eagle, she slashes the neck of a moving target and does it with thorough precision and efficiency. Violence is not the film’s pleasure but its thing of study. Such approach achieves terrific clarity that suggests syncing of the protag’s methods and morals.

    The movie is also visually pleasing. The period is captured with impeccable lucidity, vibrancy and wonder. The royal Court is beautifully designed with Oriental ornaments while the exterior landscapes are beaming with forest greenness and sunset exquisiteness. The film is also captured in a nearly square format, restricting the number of actors that can fit into the frame while giving extra vertical space for added depth and for capturing the natural backdrop. The camera barely moves in most frames, creating a hypnotic painting akin to traditional watercolour Chinese artworks.

    Despite having little to say, Shu effectively delivers the aching gravity of the lead role. Her eyes tell everything and her screen presence is commanding. Support roles from Sheung and Chang are also strong. 

    The Assassin is not your typical martial arts film as it sacrifices unnecessary physical combats to give way to the emotional swordplay of its characters. It is sluggish and hard to follow but the final discernment is surprisingly uplifting and moving. 

    Production companies: Spot Films, Central Motion Picture Organization, Sil-Metropole 
    Cast: Shu Qi, Chang Chen, Tsumabuki Satoshi, Zhou Yun, Juan Ching-tian, Hsieh Hsin-ying, Sheu Fang-yi 
    Director: Hou Hsiao-Hsien 
    Screenwriters: Chu Tien-wen, Hou Hsiao-Hsien 
    Producers: Wen-Ying Huang, Chen Yiqi, Stephen Lam, Stephen Shin 
    Director of photography: Mark Lee Ping Bin 
    Production and costume designer: Hwarng Wern-ying 
    Editors: Liao Ching-sung, Pauline Huang Chih-chia 
    Music: Lim Giong


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