The Assassin

Shu Qi, the Assassin, China

Shu Qi as The Assassin

This 2015 Chinese martial arts film (trailer) had one showing in Princeton last night—sold out! Thankfully, I caught it. The movie has had mostly positive reviews and garnered a “best direction” award for Hou Hsiao-Hsien at Cannes in 2015. A lot appreciation is due him for the overall beauty of the film.

In 9th century China, a young girl’s family sent her away to a convent for her protection. There she learned the martial arts and becomes a skilled assassin of corrupt local governors, although in one attempt, she instead showed mercy. Disgraced, she’s sent home with a deadly mission: to kill her cousin, the military governor of Weibo province, an assignment that also will test whether she can set her human feelings aside. As children the cousins were promised to each other, but for political reasons, the marriage did not take place.

Exactly why he’s a candidate for murder was somewhat lost on me, because the dialog and subtitles were sparse. Weibo faces other threats as well. Externally, the Emperor has been expanding his dominion, and Weibo is likely his next target; internally, the governor’s wife is playing by her own rules. Suffice it to say there’s plenty of intrigue, and if a few of the motivations are murky, the action is clear.

Shu Qi plays Yinniang, the assassin, and Chang Chen her cousin Lord Tian (Tian Ji’an). Beautiful sets and cinematography, and I wouldn’t mind having the costume budget, either. The soundtrack was spare, but compelling; no surprise that Lim Giong won a soundtrack award at Cannes.

People who appreciate the genre of period martial arts dramas like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero, and House of Flying Daggers have come to expect exciting (and wholly unrealistic) one-sided battles. The Assassin contains fighting, too, though much less than these previous films. Nor does it depend on wires to the same extent. Yinniang is not just a killing tool; she thinks about what she’s doing and its ramifications. The most interesting and subtle battle was between Yinniang and another female assassin. Their confrontation concludes, and the two women walk away from each other. Only in the next shot do we find out what brought the fight to its decisive end.

Reviewer Alistair Harkness in The Scotsman, criticized Hou, saying he “seemingly has little energy or reverence for the form,” whereas I come down on the side of reviewers who have called the film “mesmerizing.” At its finest, this genre is a melding of cinematic beauty and heart-stopping action. Hou opted to emphasize the former, and that worked for me.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 77%; audiences 53% (a reflection of expectations?).