Friday, December 4, 2015

The Assassin

It begins with murder and a failed assassination attempt in stark black-and white. Set in China during the waning days of the Tang Dynasty, the film's title refers to Nie Yinniang (Qi Shu), a young woman trained since the age of 10 to be an assassin. 13 years later when Nie Yinniang shows mercy rather than kill a corrupt government official in front of his young son her master punishes the young woman by returning her home to the northern province of Weibo with orders to kill the cousin (Chen Chang) to whom she was betrothed to as a child before her life took a very different path.

A far cry from the sleek, fast-paced, wire-effects-heavy, and often bloody kinds of films that the genre has been known for in recent years, The Assassin is a slow-paced character study about a woman who struggles with the morality of a calling she's so obviously skilled at performing. Despite the lush setting of misty mountains, director Hsiao-Hsien Hou's film isn't as polished as expected with several abrupt transitions and a mix of inventive but also bizarre camera placement throughout the film's 105-minute running time.

I'll admit I got a little lost in the finer points of the backstory involving Nie Yinniang's twin sister and the political ramifications tied to the province and its relationship with the court, but the themes of the film and emotions of the character come across quite naturally. The result is a far different kind of complex character-driven drama than I was expecting from its rather simple and straightforward title. In much the same way the director's natural take on the setting and fight sequences at times make it seem less polished than a studio film it also prevents the stories and characters from ever being overshadowed by the trappings of its genre.

Qi Shu is well-cast as the reluctant protagonist with an impressive ability to kill when necessary. Although the rest of the cast is important to the plot and her character's overall journey, it's her performance that holds the script together. Given severe budget problems the film was completed over a series of years which may explain some of its rougher transitions. Even with these issues, and its slow-moving first act, the film is certainly worth seeking out for patient viewers and those not adverse to subtitles.

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