With a title like that, you’d probably expect something involving a cutthroat killing machine lurking in the shadows, ready to pounce when least expected. Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s “The Assassin” goes a different route, presenting a conflicted anti-heroine weighing her options whilst obligated to her moral compass.
Taiwanese actress Shu Qi portrays the film’s titular assassin, Nie Yinniang, a trained killer who feels increasingly hesitant in carrying out the mission given to her. Chang Chen plays the role of Tian J’ian, Yinniang’s cousin who, to her dismay becomes her target while his wife, Lady Tian, is portrayed by Zhou Yun. Fang Yi-sheu steps into the dual roles of Princess Jiancheng and her twin sister, Taoist nun Jiaxin, the mentor and adoptive mother of Yinniang who puts her to the ultimate test.
In the 8th century during China’s Tang Dynasty, Taoist nun Jiaxin raises the young Nie Yinniang from the age of ten, training her to become a deadly assassin. While on her latest mission to assassinate a corrupt government official, Yinniang ultimately cannot bring herself to finish the job. In order to test her apprentice’s dedication to her mission, Jiaxin tasks her with killing the governor of the Weibo province, Tian J’ian, who just happens to be Yinniang’s cousin, whom she had once been betrothed to no less.
Like most films in the wuxia genre, “The Assassin” is worth checking out just for the lush cinematography and the gorgeous way it captures China’s scenic beauty, and perhaps more than any other wuxia film in recent memory, Hou Hsiao-Hsien lets the cinematography do almost all the talking. Shu Qi barely says a word throughout the entire film, and while most of her co-stars are chatter boxes by comparison, there’s relatively little dialogue in the film overall.
The film strives to be an almost entirely visual story even going so far as to have the opening five minutes shown in black and white, an appropriate choice for the story being told and one that’s also accomplished with some thoroughly lovely black and white, as well. The look of the film however, stands in stark contrast to the tone of the story, which is dour and glum without any respite at all. Along with the slow pace of the story this can get a little irksome, but it also creates a tonal yin to the film’s visual yang that makes the whole experience worthwhile.
“The Assassin” is first and foremost a historical drama and a character study of Yinniang, so you shouldn’t go into this film expecting it to move at a mile a minute. The action scenes are also fast and surprisingly brief when they arrive, but Shu Qi’s performance of a conflicted assassin is captured well in how little she actually commits to any attack or defense whenever she’s faced with an opponent.
She does a lot more in the way of avoiding an assault than deflecting it, as if her internal questioning of what she has been brought up to do for her entire life has left her indecisive about how best to proceed in combat and avoidance is her only viable option towards her own survival. She usually elects to strike back before long, though, and it never takes her more than two or three movements to put her enemy’s attack to a stop.
For a wuxia film, there’s also notably little reliance on wire-fu, probably the least of any wuxia film you’ve ever seen in fact. At most there’s a moment or two of gravity defiance and even then, Hou makes the decision to keep the wires almost entirely out of the actual combat in the film. That alone makes “The Assassin” a true novelty in the wuxia genre.
“The Assassin” won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is a seamless blend of visually arresting storytelling and almost dialogue-free drama. Shu Qi gives a solid performance of an assassin struggling with the mission assigned to her and rarely if ever has a wuxia film gotten by with such a minimal use of wire fu – something that you don’t often come across!
- The film is loosely based upon the 9th century martial arts’ story “Nie Yinniang” by Pei Xing, one of the core texts of both Chinese swordsmanship and wuxia fiction.
- The film was Taiwan’s submission to the 2016 Academy Awards for the Best Foreign Language Film category, though ultimately it didn’t receive a nomination.
- More than 500,000 feet of film was used in the making of “The Assassin”.