The martial arts genre often thrives on astonishing feats of agility, precise choreography and kinetic, frame-perfect editing. Not so The Assassin, Taiwanese director Hsiao-Hsien Hou’s acclaimed period piece; here, the camera lingers observantly. Characters move in and out of exquisitely dressed and lit sets with a quiet hush. This isn’t so much a typical martial arts film as a Hong Kong Barry Lyndon.
Taking place in the 8th century, The Assassin is about Nie Yinnang (Shu Qi) an efficient and deadly killer trained by a white-haired nun (Fang-Yi Shue). When Yinnang fails to execute a government official because of the presence of one of his young children, the nun dispatches Yinnang to the province of Weibo. There, Yinnang’s ordered to kill another governor – this one her own cousin, and a man she was once supposed to marry. Will Yinnang complete her mission, or will her human decency again cause her to stay her blade?
By now, you’ve probably read a word or two about The Assassin‘s gorgeous cinematography. Audiences at Cannes apparently watched the movie with hushed fascination when it was screened there in 2015; when the end credits rolled, cheers and spontaneous applause erupted. It’s certainly true there’s a meditative, dignified beauty to The Assassin’s imagery. The stately way in which the drama gradually unfolds invites us to study every corner of the frame as though we’re standing in an art gallery. With their lush fabrics and guttering candles, some sequences look like Vermeer paintings.
Yet when it comes to the story told through these beautiful images, your mileage may vary. The plot is a simple one, yet it’s doled out in such sparse, dainty morsels of dialogue that it isn’t always easy to follow who’s who, at least early on. Anyone expecting the scenes of restrained drama and grand mood setting – a breathtaking shot of a character looking out over foggy mountains, lords and ladies reclining in their gilded luxury – to give way to contrasting moments of violence will also be disappointed.
Cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin can stage and light a scene better than anyone, yet the occasional fights in The Assassin fail to leave much of a mark. This isn’t to say that the movie required anything like the hyper-stylised wire-fu action of, say, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, or the explosive physical precision of Ip Man. But there’s something about the way The Assassin‘s faster-paced sequences are shot and staged that makes them seem almost apologetic.
The greater problem, perhaps, is that the quiet dignity of the drama makes The Assassin a film that appeals to the intellect rather than the viscera. We can swoon at Lim Giong’s minimal yet effective score and revel in Hsiao-Hsien’s immaculately crafted scenes, but the characters are constantly held at a distance. From the young assassin Yinniang to Tian Ji’an, the governer she’s supposed to kill, the players seldom feel like living, breathing people – they appear more like butterflies pinned and mounted, or sculptures arranged for a museum exhibit.
There are moments of visual splendour in The Assassin to make the eyes pop, but for this writer at least, little to make pulses pound or blood run cold in the veins.
The Assassin is out in UK cinemas now.