Assassin, The

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 10/30/15 15:14:11

"Beautiful, tense, thrilling."
5 stars (Awesome)

Confession: Going into this movie, I thought it was going to be a bit different than it was, not because I expected an all-out action extravaganza, but because I had director Hou Hsiao-hsien mixed up with an even more deliberate art-house filmmaker. That doesn't make it seem like fast-paced Jackie Chan material; it's still a dense, boutique film. It just makes the prospect of multiple viewings to unpack all that's going on much more exciting than it might be.

It is a tale of 9th Century China, where Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi) has been training as an assassin under the eye of Princess-Nun Jiaxin (Sheu Fang-yi), who has decided that the time is right to return her to her home province of Weibo, which has started to show more independence from the central authority, and kill Lord Tian Ji'an (Chang Chen). Given that the pair's history is why Yinniang was sent away in the first place, it is probably very fortunate that Tian and his wife (Zhou Yun) have already produced an heir or two.

This is not a complicated set of circumstances, even when one gives it a closer look, and there are many moments when the action seems to move like cinematographer Lee Ping-bin's camera - steadily, but slowly enough that it seems like someone must be holding it back, as it never quite seems to pick up the speed that it logically would given that there is clearly force behind it. Perhaps it's a stifling formality, or Yiniang's choosiness about when and when she'll kill, or maybe it's that, ultimately, their story is clearly just one of many things going on - there is regular mention, for instance, of a concubine who may be faking a period, and background on the characters fleshes out their situations more than it redirects their actions.

That relatively slow pace and formality charges the cast to do a lot without always seeming to accomplish very much, and they're up to it. Shu Qi has maybe half a dozen lines in the film, but she intrigues nonetheless, clearly both capable and reluctant in her role; she makes big decisions in a subdued but definitive way. Chang Chen gets the flashier role as the lord who has the air of power but chafes at the limits to what he can do. They don't interact directly very often, but those moments are perfectly understated and full of history. There is a similarly well-acted supportive cast, though a large-enough one doing fine enough work that it may take a couple of passes through the film to see how they all fit together, although it's impressively seamless work.

A second pass will be a delight, though, because this film is beautiful. Hou and Lee use an unusually tall/narrow frame and fill every quadrant with exquisite imagery, elegant but not excessively ornate. And not necessarily still (although many moments are); the brief sequences of martial-arts action are well-choreographed, sometimes quick, sometimes extended, strong without coming off as brutal and cruel. Most striking, I think, are some of the things they and the effects crew did with mist and fog - one shot reminded me of ghosts dancing, foreshadowing an intriguing turn of events whose use of such imagery surprises. And then, at the finale, there is a masterful use of fog to change a gorgeous wide-open vista into a shadowy private meeting - a breathtaking visual that sneaks up on the viewer.

Also sneaking up is the music by Lim Giong - it initially seems quite minimalistic, but soon one notices a drumbeat emphasizing the inevitability of the plans set in action before a shift to something more thrilling for the martial arts and something spritely for a dance scene. Lim does an exceptional job of staying out of the way and setting the scene when need be. It's one of dozens of little things that tie the movie together in a way that even the classiest movies of its genre seldom manage.

The film is Taiwan's submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, and though it's early to handicap that race, it's not too early to get ahead of it. Or, heck, just watch beautiful movies that are more exciting than the director's art-house reputation and more artistic than its surface genre would suggest.

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