“The Assassin” (2015)
by Chris Kessinger, aka The Film Freak
Revenge is a game full of many twists and turns. This is no more evident than in “The Assassin,” a film that won director Hou Hsiao-Hsien the Best Director award at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. This is Hsiao-Hsien’s first film in eight years, and over 500,000 feet of footage was shot for the film’s final 101-minute presentation cut. The film is set in ninth-century China, at the end of the Tang Dynasty, with popular Asian actress Shu Qi playing a highly trained female assassin who, after failing one mission, is sent back to her home province to kill its governor (Chen Chang), the man she loves. The Assassin is a visually stunning feminist performance: Yinniang (Shu Qi) is a badass with a sword who commands respect. And she is absolutely fearless against her many enemies. But Yinniang faces an uphill battle in order to kill her former employer and lover. This plot structure is familiar, but never before has it been presented in Chinese culture during a forgotten era.
Hsiao-Hsien is a master behind the camera. He exhibits great respect for Chinese culture, evident in wide-angled shots that render characters as secondary to the sweeping landscape, where anyone could be hiding. More importantly, Hsiao-Hsien’s patient storytelling appeals to the story lover in all of us. While martial arts fans may yearn for more action, this is a film that exercises great narrative restraint and rewards viewer compassion. And the viewer’s patience is rewarded in the grander vision of the film. Similarly, the musical score is subtle: unlike Hollywood film scores that dominate over all action, the music in “The Assassin” is carefully inserted at precise moments to heighten rather than overpower suspense.
The real wild card of this film, however, is Qi. She is enigmatic in her reactions to other characters and her alienation makes her extremely volatile to anyone who opposes her. What makes her character so enticing to me is her unwillingness to shoot her victims from a distance. Her killings are up-close and personal. Qi, a megastar in Asia, takes on quite a different role in “The Assassin” from those she has taken in the past: here, she is mysterious at all times, beautiful in presentation, and deadly in execution. Qi is, without a doubt, the best choice for a role as complex as Yinniang.
Marketing for “The Assassin” claims to be one of the most beautiful films to come to America this year. With a powerful message and crisp cinematography, it serves to educate viewers about Chinese culture and the actions of a generation when the battle for respect was at its deadliest. The lives of many remain in the hands and sword of one female assassin. You can find The Assassin at the best Independent theater in the land, The Nightlight, beginning on October 30.
The Nightlight Cinema
30 North High Street
Akron, Ohio, 44308