Director: Hsiao-Hsien Hao
Released: August 2015(China)
Run Time: 107 Minutes
Distributor: Well Go USA Entertainment
Genre: Martial Arts/Drama
Qi Shu: Nie Yinniang
Chen Chang: Tian Ji’An
Satoshi Tsumabuki: The Mirror Polisher
The term “wuxia” is a relatively new term, appearing at the end of the Qing Dynasty in China. It is literally translated as “martial hero.” While the term itself is fairly new, the genre is part of traditional storytelling that dates back more than 2,000 years. It involves a lone stranger who happens to be a martial arts expert who comes from some strange place to fight and destroy evil. In film, wuxia has been a staple of Chinese film-making for the better part of a century. It rose to prominence during the 60s and 70s with all those cheesy kung-fu flicks that people like myself enjoy. It started being taken seriously with Once Upon a Time in China starring Jet Li. There’s a lot of fantasy and wire-work involved. When done right, it is incredibly spectacular. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a really good example of a wuxia film. It’s also the most well-known. We’ve been seeing a lot of these movies come out of Hong Kong over the past couple of years. The most recent and quite possibly the most compelling is The Assassin from director Hsiao-Hsien Hao. This film takes many conventions that are prominent in wuxia and changes it up quite a bit.
The Assassin follows Nie Yinniang, a female assassin who was taken from her family when she was younger, and trained as….well, an assassin. This is set during the 9th century Tang Dynasty. This was a time of prosperity of sorts, but China being China, you have certain elements that are vying for control of certain regions. The Assassin follows Yinniang as she is ordered to kill her cousin, Tian Ji’an, to whom she was betrothed once upon a time. While the story appears to be simple, there’s a lot more going on in terms of politics and why Yinniang does what she does. The best thing I noticed about this film is that it doesn’t treat its audience like morons. It does not hold your hand with tons of exposition(I’m looking at you, George Lucas), but it does give you breadcrumbs to follow. That being said, some people’s patience may be tested because this The Assassin is a slow-burner. It moves slowly but deliberately, and without a great deal of dialogue to help you through it. There are some fight scenes and when they do show up, they are cool, but they don’t last very long. Calling The Assassin a martial arts movie is kind of missing the point of the film. Yeah, it has martial arts in it, but it’s more character-driven. Your average martial arts film only focuses on the fighting, which is not a bad thing. I love a good fight flick as much as the next guy. The Assassin is more about the journey of a select group of people and their relationships to each other. This is the essence of drama, and The Assassin handles it extremely well.
From a visual standpoint, The Assassin is absolutely stunning in high-definition. I picked this up on Blu-Ray and I’m absolutely blown away by how beautiful this movie is. The film starts out in black-and-white, as sort of an homage to the much older films of yore. But then the color comes in and it just stands out. The whole film was shot in 35mm, and it is glorious. The landscapes are simply stunning with incredible mountain ranges and even the swamps and the forests are wondrous to behold. Everything else about the film is equally exquisite. The costumes and sets are elaborate, yet minimal. The one thing I noticed, and this may throw some people for a loop is the aspect ratio: The frame in which the film is shot. This is not your typical wide-screen presentation. No, it’s somewhere between full frame and wide-screen. At first, I thought I got a crappy Blu-Ray, but then I noticed that during certain scenes, it would expand. This leads me to believe that it was a stylistic choice on the director’s part. You know what? It works. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a film shot this way, but it allows the audience to focus on the important parts of the film: The characters. So, it was a risk on Hao’s part to do this and it pays off.
Let’s talk about the characters. These are probably the most relatable and human characters I’ve ever seen in a martial arts flick. The assassin herself, Yinniang, is clearly good at what she does, and it’s very evident in the fights she’s in. She knows how to kill proficiently and quickly. Even though, she gets her orders from her master, she doesn’t necessarily always follow through, because she thinks for herself. She believes that killing people isn’t always a viable option. She doesn’t always kill the people she’s fighting, but she ends the fight quickly. Her cousin, Tian Ji’an, looks like a villain, but he really isn’t. He’s a family man who is trying to prevent conflicts from escalating while protecting his own family. He’s equally conflicted when Yinniang shows up. The characters are supposed to drive the story, not the action. The action is quite good, albeit brief. The fights are well-choreographed and we do have a little wire-work going on, but the biggest impact of these fights is what happens before and after the action. There’s a lot going on.
In conclusion, The Assassin is probably one of the most compelling martial arts movies I have ever seen. It’s well-thought out and executed with some incredible visuals and landscapes. The acting is second to none and is deserving of all the accolades that it gets. It is one of the best movies that I’ve seen in a long time. Is it the best? Not really, but it’s up there. If there’s a downside to the film, it’s that the pacing may be off-putting for some people. The movie is only 107 minutes long, but for some people, that can be an eternity. So, this movie is not for impatient people. For those that are willing to take the time, The Assassin offers a unique and incredibly well-made experience that has a surprising amount of depth. I highly recommend this one to anybody who appreciates good film-making. 10/10.