Hsiao-Hsien Hou’s The Assassin tells the story of Nie Yinniang (played by Shu Qui), a young woman who was kidnapped at 10 years old and trained to be an assassin. Unmatched in her skill for fighting, Yinniang cannot separate her job from her personal compassion. Having failed to carry out an assassination, she is punished by being sent back to her old home where she must kill a military governor, Lord Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen), who is also her cousin and was her first love.
The Assassin is probably one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen – each scene is perfectly crafted and not one shot is without merit. Some are honestly breath-taking, and one of the film’s joys is how long the camera lingers, giving the audience time to appreciate what they’re seeing. The costumes are lavish, the sets range from incredibly luscious interiors to beautifully stark shots of the Chinese countryside (a fight scene that takes place in a silver-birch forest was particularly stunning), and the film’s aesthetic appeal dominates everything else.
The film feels incredibly clean and crisp: the fight scenes are very sharp and are not detracted from by shaky camerawork; moreover there is barely any blood or gore in the film. Shu Qui is absolutely captivating, both in the amazing choreography of the fights and in the frequent moments of stillness in which she watches those she has been sent to kill. The film’s pacing reflects how the life of an assassin must be: long, slow periods of watching and waiting, followed by rapid moments of intense action.
The Assassin isn’t for everybody – it is incredibly slow and is certainly not action-packed, although when the fight scenes do come around they are stunning. There is little dialogue, and the plot certainly plays second fiddle to the beautiful cinematography. But it is a mesmerising piece of film, and holds a sense of majesty that I haven’t seen on screen in a long time.
Image:Georges Biard; Wikimedia Commons