Cannes Film Festival: The Assassin

Directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien
Starring Shu Qi, Chang Chen, Zhou Yun and Tsumabuki Satoshi

by Joanna Orland

While I can certainly appreciate The Assassin‘s elegance, I sadly cannot enjoy it.  The film excels in its beauty and grace, but completely neglects to engage its audience in this slow-burning but beautiful work by Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien.

The Assasin‘s visuals and tranquil soundscape are certainly a work of art, each shot masterfully composed and delicately filmed to both mesmerize and hypnotize.  The cinematic portrayal of nature is stunning and almost belongs on canvas rather than on screen.  The soundscape too is so serene and calming that while artfully enjoyable, it can also begin to dull the senses with its monotony.  The martial arts scenes are beautifully choreographed in a similar vain to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon style of fighting, but Hsiao-hsien’s interpretation would likely find itself having more in common with a ballet rather than another film.  These graceful scenes are the highlight in this very slow film, but are far too infrequent to make the film enjoyable as a whole.

Set in 9th century China, The Assassin focuses on Nie Yinniang who is taken into a nun’s custody and trained into an assassin, tasked with eliminating corrupt local rulers.  After having one day failed at her task due to compassion, she is sent back to her birthland with orders to kill the man to whom she was once promised – a man who now leads the largest military region in North China.  She struggles with the dilemma of killing this man that she once loved, or breaking forever with her sacred way of the assassins.  Much of this plot unfolds in silence, making this film more ambient than plot-driven.  Dialogue unfolds too realistically, often repeated and very factual, as characters inform each other of the threat of Nie Yinniang and the reason behind it.  This dialogue and story are the weakest aspects of The Assassin.

The film may find its audience in those who are extremely patient and who enjoy watching an ambient mood piece that is masterfully filmed.  For those looking for a martial arts drama, best to look elsewhere.


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