assassin

For lack of a better description, famed Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s latest film, The Assassin, is a martial arts film. But that is a broad and misleading generalization for a film that is much more concerned with detail. It’s a bit of a slog, even for the patient viewer, but is not entirely without rewards. There are moments to love, you just have to look for them – and that may be Hsiao-hsien’s whole point.

Set in ninth century China, the film stars Shu Qi as Yinniang, a young woman who, upon completion of her training as an assassin, is sent back to her home province to kill its governor, Tian Ji’an (played by Chang Chen). Complicating this situation is the fact that Yinniang and Tian grew up together and were once intended to be married. Why Yinniang was sent away to begin with is part of a tangled web of politics and family secrets that slowly come to light upon her return and, at times, become unnecessarily complicated.

Shot primarily with long takes and in wide angles, the film seems deliberately designed to force the audience to be active viewers, rather than focusing their attention for them. It goes a step further in that many scenes are shot through obstructions such as gauzy curtains or trees in a forest, putting the viewer in the position of eavesdropper. This is also fitting since eavesdropping is what the title character spends much of her time doing. The staging and interaction within each scene is more important than the events of that scene. In other words, what’s happening may not be as important as what you see.

In the visual pleasures department, the film is magnificent. A bowl of pomegranates has never looked so good, and it’s not even in the foreground. These are the kinds of details that the film makes room for, and those who are able to give themselves over to it will find much to be discovered. Each scene is a vista all its own, and though the action scenes may be short in numbers and duration, they are exquisite. The action is part and parcel of wuxia, long a Chinese storytelling tradition, from which the film takes the basis for its story. But given the slow pacing and formal aesthetics on display, this is a film that’s more interested in subtleties and nuance than action.

In and of itself this is not a bad thing. Unfortunately the experience gets muddled by sub-plots involving warring provinces and insurrection against the ruling dynasty. Perhaps those more familiar with the wuxia genre will be less distracted by the intricate politics and family dynamics. Likewise, those better attuned to Hsiao-hsien’s style may be in for a real treat – he did, after all, win the directing prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. But it is hard to sit back and take in all of the visual pleasures while also wondering what exactly is going on.

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