Toping numerous “Best Of 2015” lists despite being released to a public audience in 2016 The Assassin arrives with no small amount of weight on its shoulders. But, unlike many critical friendly films, The Assassin doesn’t buy into the traditional “worthy” film bracket. Instead it opts, like its title character, to go its own route and benefits from it to delightful levels.
Set in 8th Century China, during the Tang Dynasty, the film follows Yinniang (Shu Qi) an assassin raised by a Nun to kill corrupt government officials. When she shows mercy to her latest target her superior decides to test her loyalty to her sworn duty. Sent to the province of Weibo Yinniang is ordered to kill Tian Ji’an (Chen Chang), a man she was betrothed to as a child.
Unlike the swordplay and fight sequences on display The Assassin is an intentionally slow moving film. Glacially slow at points. But director Hsiao-Hsien Hou is more interested in dissecting the nobility, order and emotion of this world.
Yinniang, though the central character, is often left on the periphery of the action and politics taking place around her. She watches, almost with us, a voyeur not quite belonging to this world but integral in deciding its outcome. Every scene is shot with a hypnotic, graceful quality of movement. Like Yinniang herself Hou isn’t interested in flashy execution but creating and building both intimacy and suspense.
Scenes are often shot through sheer curtains, a veil cast over this world that is never quite what it appears to be. Part of the hook is the stripped-back, often lack, of dialogue. These characters say more through their actions than any words they speak. The smallest of flex of a facial muscle communicating much more about the character’s thoughts and emotions than the more functional dialogue on offer.
The images that Hou captures are staggering. Shot in China and Mongolia it often feels like a traditional Chinese painting, colours washing over the screen to create a tapestry of gorgeous visuals. Even the opening intro, shot in sumptuous black and white, creates a sense of depth so compelling it’s a smart gambit to subtly lure you into the world of The Assassin.
In central role Qi is given little to say but there is a tragedy lurking behind those killer eyes. It’s hard to think this is an actress who was at one point in her career asked to be little more than Jason Statham’s girl in distress for The Transporter. Here she’s resolute, strong and a force to be reckoned with. But with every sword swing you sense an inner turmoil.
A vivid and emotionally charged insight into a bygone era led by breathlessly powerful performances. The Assassin is killer.