Cannes 2015: ‘The Assassin’ is a beautifully filmed, inane postcard from 9th century China


Nie Yinniang (The Assassin)

Directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien

Written by Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Chu Tien-Wen

Taiwan 2015

There was a lot wriggling and quite a few walkouts in today’s screening of Nie Yinniang. My initial thoughts were rambling along the lines of: “Is this worse than the worst film in competition so far?”; “The writers need to take some remedial scriptwriting classes”; “Did someone bribe Cannes to get this film in?” Woe the martial arts and Asian cinema ignoramus that I am – apparently the director is a “master of the genre” and critics loved the film. Well, critics except this one.

Nie Yinniang tells the story of Yinniang, played by Shu Qi, a taciturn black-clad female assassin (for a while I thought the character was supposed to be mute but eventually she blurted out some random phrase or two). She is under the control of a most preposterous princess Jiaxin, who is also a religious figure (something like a Buddhist ISIS equivalent?). Jiaxin usually wears exuberant white gowns and tries to meddle in the political life of the provinces by sending out her pet assassin on various missions. After Yinniang fails to complete the routine assassination of a high-ranking official, Jiaxin dispatches her to kill provincial governor Tian Jian. Verisimilitude galore thus far. The next scheduled victim, Tian Jian, happens to be Yinniang’s cousin whom she was also previously engaged to, so in a lapse of professionalism she is reluctant to carry out the assassination. Tian Jain is himself involved in some sort of territorial dispute with neighbouring provinces and a domestic mess with his wife and concubine. Some sort, because none of these storylines are possible to grasp by simply watching the film: “Where are the footnotes?”, I was thinking exasperatedly – prior or posterior research is necessary, and of course being familiar with Chinese history or this particular martial arts genre might shed some clarity.

Various minor characters of dubious significance are thrown into this jumble, which appears to try to defy genre expectations by having few and far between, amateurishly executed fight scenes, instead focusing on lengthy, though beautiful, sequences of nothing at all happening. It manages to so defy the genre conventions that after the first hour the viewer starts to pray for a coup de grace – for the gorgeous pouting face of Shu Qi and the luxurious majestic costumes and magnificent mountains to just get on with it and finish once and for all. Kill whom you have to kill or don’t, but just let me get out (for the record, I didn’t join the ranks of the walks out on principle).

Nie Yinniang is like an extremely beautiful, extremely fatuous woman (in this case, Shu Qi) – at first the gorgeous packaging draws the viewer in, there is a phase of giving the film the benefit of the doubt, the problem might be unfamiliarity with 9th century China, the martial arts tradition, etc. After a while comes the realisation that the beautiful exterior is unfortunately a front for vacuousness…

The jumbled script, histrionic acting and paltry characterisation (we know as little about the main character by the end of the film as at the beginning) reduce The Assassin to little more than eye candy – a series of upscale postcards composed of luxurious tableaux of rural landscapes, pretty women in elaborate traditional costumes, a set design minutely recreating the period’s architecture and interiors, all these beautifully lit and filmed. But a superb cinematography alone does not a film make. As a series of disconnected vignettes, the film is stunningly designed but the characters are mere good-looking images devoid of any substance, credibility or rational driving force.

Sorry master Hou, time for a rewrite.  

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