I was extremely excited to have the opportunity to see The Assassin. Quite honestly, the title alone had my attention. As a connoisseur of martial arts movies, I jump at the chance to see a new release. From grind-house kung-fu of the 70s to the more epic and high flying kung-fu of recent, I enjoy them all. There is a beauty in material arts films that you just can’t find in most action movies and The Assassin is no exception.
The plot, which is confusing at best, tells a story of a ninth century dynasty in its dying days. Yinniang (Shu Qui) is sent away as a child to be trained by a nun to became a lethal assassin. After proving herself, the silent but deadly Yinniang, is asked to kill a corrupt government official. She sneaks into his home, but is unable to make the kill because his son is there as a witness. The outraged nun master then sends Yinniang home to face the chaos of the unraveling dynasty where she is expected to kill her own cousin. With very little dialogue, the plot becomes a bit murky. Add in the cast of thousands, all seemingly dressed alike, and I was more than a little lost. There was so much emphasis on the backstory of the declining dynasty, that what was actually happening at present time in the movie I never really grasped. Add in the main characters, side characters, characters that were never explained, I was left with no choice but to pretty much give up on understanding any of it. But what I did not give up on was the beauty of the film.
Shot on 35mm, Director Hou Hsiao-hsien and Cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bin have made an absolutely breathtaking film. The landscape was utterly amazing, from wooded forests to deep valleys and high mountains. The set designs of the ancient palaces were sweepingly beautiful with sheer and colorful fabrics distorting the lighting. The costumes were incredible. Each character was outfitted with careful consideration of era, social status and the beauty of fabrics. Shu Qui as the lead character was deep and dark and full of emotion and life. With very few lines, she was able to form and grow into the role of the assassin. She was beautiful, graceful, and brilliant.
The only thing that was missing, beside a follow-able plot, was more martial arts. The few and far between fight scenes were brief, but strangely intimate. I found it refreshing that the fight scenes seemed real. There was no high flying action, no outrageous stunts, just real fighting. Choreographed with knives instead of swords, the fighting appeared more dance like and forced the characters into unusual closeness. From a cinematic perspective the fight scenes were beautiful, close and full of emotion. However, three fights scene in a kung-fu movie isn’t NEARLY enough.
While The Assassin was an extraordinary film of beauty, I felt I came out a little empty handed. The plot was impossible to follow. The huge cast of characters blurred together. The so called assassin seemed to fail at every assignment she was given. I couldn’t even tell who was “bad” and who was “good”. And most of the time, when I wasn’t being confused by all the aimless roaming in the forest, I was wondering when the martial arts was going to start. This movie wasn’t a kung-fu movie at all, maybe it was an introspective look into the mind of a trained assassin with a conscience (which makes for a really bad assassin). The point is, after 2 hours in the theater and much research, I probably will never know. Is this movie worth your 2 hours? I honestly don’t know….I am even confused on that!