EXPECTATIONS: A martial arts film that 100% represents Hou’s film-making style. And Shu Qi!
REVIEW: This movie was a long time coming. It was in gestation/pre-production for 25 years and 5 years in production and now it has finally arrived. A movie similar in the long-awaited hype and genre would be The Grandmaster, directed by Wong Kar-Wai. They both have an acclaimed director that rarely explore mainstream genres, the films both have long production phases and the directors both place their distinct styles into the films (Hou’s style is naturalistic while Wai’s style is romanticized). And now we have The Assassin, starring Hou’s muse and collaborator, Shu Qi and Chang Chen. Is the film worth the wait? For Hou’s fans of his style, it is heaven, but for martial arts fans, it is very questionable. In my view, I very much enjoyed The Assassin, and I am so glad to have watched the film in the Sydney Film Festival 2015.
In the background of a settled conflict between the Imperial Court and the powerful Weibo military province, Shu Qi stars as Nie Yinniang, the titular assassin who is trained under Master Jiaxing (Sheu Fang-Yi) when she was a young age.. Yinniang goes on various missions to take down corrupt government officials until one day, she fails to kill the son of the target. She is then punished by taking on a new mission, which involves going back to her hometown where she was taken in, reuniting with her family and to kill a man whom she was set to marry, Governor Tian Ji’an (Hou veteran, Chang Chen). Will she be able to carry on the mission or will she fight back?
First off, let’s talk about the technical values of the film. Um, whoa! The film looked spectacular on the big screen. Using real locations, with saturated colours and the authentic costumes worn by the characters, there is no lack of effort apparent in the look of the film. The opening of the film is in black-and-white and the cinematography still looks fantastic, and when the title screen shows up, the colours explode into place. There’s a scene in the film when Yinniang storms the palace and the use of smoke in the shot looks incredibly nightmarish, almost as if a ghost came after the character. There are many scenes in the film that you just have to witness on screen. As for the costumes of the characters, some of it evokes the look of wuxia films back in the 70’s and 80’s, and yet, they don’t call attention to itself as it doesn’t look exaggerated to the point that it could only come from film. There’s a fight scene in a forest between Yinniang and another character that reminded me of A Touch of Zen, and that’s a compliment.
Speaking of the fight scenes, those who are looking for thrills and action set-pieces in their films, do not watch this film. The fight scenes here are quick, efficient, done without remorse and are over before they even start, which makes perfect sense since Yinniang is portrayed to be the best of her kind. Silent but deadly, like the character. The actors also lend their skills to the material and suit the tone that director Hou is going for. Shu Qi, although she is too old for her role, is fantastic as Nie Yinniang. Her understated acting pays off with surprisingly emotional dividends like in a scene where she is nursed of her wounds and she handles her fight scenes professionally, which is kind of surprising since I thought she was struggling a lot in her 2002 action film, So Close. Funnily enough, her actual age lends a sort of maturity to the role that never would have been shown is she had played the role at 23 (the character’s age). Chang Chen, who has played the love interest of Shu Qi many times, looks the part and brings the practiced chemistry with her, but doesn’t really add much more to the role. Supporting roles are better (particularly with the females) with Sheu Fang-Yi excelling as the master of Yinniang, with plenty of opportunities to convey her cold-hearted nature (she also plays Princess Jiacheng) and Zhou Yun as Tian Ji’an’s wife, who convincingly suppresses her anger over the situation.
As for the storytelling, the pacing is really slow, almost glacial. But fortunately, the story is a wuxia template, with all of its tropes cut down to its pure and bare essentials. There’s a mention of Yinniang’s training at a young age that could pay off in crowd-pleasing ways, but it is never shown. Fight scenes are never sprawling or long-winded. There’s very little use of wire-work in the fight scenes. In fact, nothing about the story is sprawling at all, which unlike the look of the film, the story is all kept at a bare minimum. Even the aspect ratio of the film is done in 4:3, which keeps a tight focus on the film at hand. Like many wuxia stories, the characters and story may be a bit hard to follow but Hou makes this approach definitively and uniquely his, as it is more about his naturalistic approach than it is about convoluted storytelling. Any veneer in the story or characters that show flaws or cracks in its appearance, it pays off emotionally, but you have to look out for it, which can be hard when you are gazing at the film more than you are looking. This approach to storytelling may not always work (Hou’s earlier film, The Flowers of Shanghai really bored me to sleep), but the bigger budget and the change in genre bring a refreshing feel to those familiar to Hou’s work as well as those willing to step out of the martial arts norm.
Much like Wong Kar Wai’s film, The Grandmaster, Hou Hsiao-Hsien has made a martial arts film that is more of a personal statement than a genre film and his filmmaking style suits the genre surprisingly well. It will definitely split people’s opinions of martial arts fans (as it did for The Grandmaster) but The Assassin definitely makes its mark in martial arts cinema and I hope more acclaimed directors make their mark in martial arts films.
P.S – Now imagine if director Fruit Chan or Pang Ho-Cheung made a martial arts film. Now that is something I will be very hyped up for!
Cinematography, music and settings look astoundingly beautiful
Shu Qi gives the character more substance than what is shown
The supporting cast give fine performances
Wuxia tropes are refreshingly cut down to the bare essentials and are shown without any postmodern touch
Pacing can be very slow
Emotions can be too inert
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