It’s a tad misleading to define Hsiao-Hsien Hou’s The Assassin as a martial arts movie. Sure, there are moments of intense fighting by people who look like they’re trained in that form of combat, but they are truly moments. Cinema is rife with martial arts films that insist on obscenely elaborate fight scenes that are thrilling at the time but ultimately aren’t as memorable as they’re meant to be. Hou decides to go a slightly different route with the genre. Instead of giving the fight scenes the attention, he wants the audience to watch everything else.
Set in in China during the Tang Dynasty era, the film focuses on Nie Yinniang, a young woman returning to her hometown after years of banishment. But unknown to her family, she is really sent back by her master to kill her cousin who she was meant to marry years ago. The film is about her conflict and why she struggles to carry out her task. The details are a little hard to follow and are presented so quickly, but none of that is actually that important. The story is not what makes the film memorable, although a more fleshed out plot would have benefited it greatly.
The film’s opening sequence is in black and white. While not really contributing to what’s presently happening on the screen, this choice merely serves to enhance the title shot: a gorgeous sunset reflecting off water with the title of the film in red in what looks to be a brushstroke font. From that moment on, it’s clear that the cinematography is what this film is all about. While it is a uniquely beautiful film, the visuals will only be enough for some viewers to consider this great cinema.
A refreshing element of The Assassin is the fact that the lead character is female: a nice surprise for a title role that usually belongs to male characters. Yinniang is given an understated and very poised performance by actress Qi Shu (who worked with Hou on the film Three Times). Despite the lack of gratuitous fight scenes, Shu is still able to establish herself as a young woman with impeccable combat skills. Hou is wise to showcase this right from the start in the black and white sequence in which she kills a man riding on horseback with incredible ease. Hou doesn’t need to bash the audience over the head with over the top martial arts violence to convince them that Yinniang is a killer. He chooses precise moments to showcase her capabilities in off handed ways. One of the very short fight scenes is even filmed from far away, which is unheard of in this genre, but it works for the tone of this film. And Shu has just the right amount of quiet brooding mixed with child-like innocence that makes her character’s conflict even more understandable.
While Yinniang ends up being a compelling character thanks to Shu’s performance, a better story could have been constructed to match equally with the quality of the cinematography, directing, and performances. The time period lends itself to many captivating tales, and The Assassin is supposedly based on one of them. But with the way the story is written and paced, it cuts out too much detail that ends up leaving the audience confused and possibly even bored. Pacing wise, it’s incredibly slow, which is okay if the build up actually leads to something worth the anticipation. Unfortunately, there is no such moment, and it wouldn’t be surprising if most viewers find this unworthy of their time. But again, what makes The Assassin worth remembering isn’t the plot, but everything else. The costuming, set pieces, acting, directing, and of course cinematography is why it’s becoming so talked about.
It’s clear that Hou set out to make a realistic martial arts film. Again, The Assassin doesn’t even fall into that category. It’s more of a historical drama with martial arts thrown in every once in a while. But the absence of super intense fighting isn’t the problem. In fact, it’s one of the film’s best qualities, offering more than the fantastical fight scenes that most quintessential martial arts movies create. The visuals and the characters are what make the film, it’s just a shame that they aren’t in a more fleshed out and compelling story. Obviously the last thing audiences’ want is to be spoon-fed every detail, but there is a fine line between that and essentially not giving the audience enough to work with in terms of truly understanding a story.