Most critical opinion for Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s “The Assassin” was so strong, that I was extremely surprised that I didn’t adore it. Oh, there were some naysayers too, but the critics I read largely loved it. So much so, that I was reserving a place for it in my 2015 annual Top Ten. But, despite it being great looking (cinematography by Mark Lee Ping Bin), and very well acted and directed…it left me a little cold. I am so shocked by this development, that I fully expect to give “The Assassin” a future 2nd view. Connection could have been hampered by my torrid winter film pace. So, for now, it’s beautiful–but opaque.
“The Assassin” is set in the 8th century during the waning years of the Tang Dynasty. Nie Yinniang (a marvelous Shu Qi) has been raised by a martial arts master nun (Fang-yi Sheu) since a tender age. Soon, she’s trained as an assassin by her guardian Jiaxin, with the purpose of using her immense skills to eliminate corrupt government officials. An expert killer, Nie falters in her duties when she dares to show mercy. As punishment, Nie is sent by Jiaxin on a very difficult assignment to test her resolve. Ordered to the distant province of Weibo in Northern China, Yinniang is given the task of killing someone she loves.
Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s direction is so strong (he won Best Director at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival), and so patient, that there’s much to admire concerning the loving attention to his craft. In Mandarin (with English subtitles), the screenplay that he collaborated on, is rich and meticulous too. Also, limiting the use of audience-pleasing wuxia is a daring and admirable choice. I do admire the film. I just couldn’t quite penetrate it on my initial viewing. Still, I highly recommend a look, if only for my more astute cinephiles. Shu Qi has some wonderful presence, and Taiwanese actor Chang Chen also stars.