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Movie review: The Assassin 刺客聶隱娘

Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s eagerly awaited first feature in eight years is an idiosyncratic blend of the wuxia genre and the auteur’s own style

By Ho Yi  /  Staff reporter

Shu Qi plays the enigmatic titular assassin in The Assassin.

Photo courtesy of Tsai Cheng–tai, Spot Films

Hou Hsiao Hsien (侯孝賢) and the wuxia genre seem to be unsuited as the martial-arts cinema, which traditionally focuses on movement and action, is not the type of film one easily associates with the Taiwanese auteur known for his quiet, minimal cinematic ethos.

But Hou’s fans can rest assured. The Assassin (刺客聶隱娘), the director’s eagerly anticipated first foray into the martial-arts realm, turns out to be ravishingly beautiful work of wuxia that is instantly recognizable as a Hou film.

The story is set during the decline of the Tang Dynasty, a time when the provinces maintained uneasy relations with the Imperial Court.

The story revolves around Nie Yinniang, a female assassin who works for master and princess-turned-nun Jiaxin (Sheu Fang-yi (許芳宜).

A sequence soon follows that gorgeously demonstrates how different Hou’s approach is going to be. Yinniang practices her craft; the action plays out at a distance, behind glittering foliage and flashing blades. Not even a glimpse of blood is shown.

However, after Yinniang backs down from an assignment because she sees her target with his young son, a disappointed Jiaxin orders her back to Weibo, her hometown, to assassinate Lord Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen, 張震). Weibo is the strongest of the provinces that have become hotbeds of rebellion as the authority of the Emperor weakens.

Yinniang returns home after an absence of 13 years, lurks in the shadows and observes.

As we soon learn, Yinniang is the general’s daughter. She was taken from her family at age 10 and placed in the care of Jiaxin, who trained her to become a killer tasked with eliminating warlords. Yinniang’s new target, Lord Tian, happens to be her cousin, to whom she was once promised in marriage as a child.

Film Notes

THE ASSASSIN 刺客聶隱娘

DIRECTED BY:Hou Hsiao Hsien (侯孝賢)

STARRING:Shu Qi (舒淇) as Nie Yinniang, Chang Chen (張震) as Lord Tian Ji’an, Sheu Fang-yi (許芳宜) as Jiaxin and Jiacheng

LANGUAGE: in Mandarin with Chinese and English subtitles

RUNNING TIME:106 MINUTES

TAIWAN RELEASE:TODAY


Meanwhile, Lord Tian reigns over his realm with ruthlessness. In the lord’s household, brewing intrigue also takes place between his murderous wife (Zhou Yun, 周韻) and favorite concubine Huji (Hsieh Hsin-ying, 謝欣穎), who is pregnant with his child.

So far, this summary has revealed more clues than the audience will be able to discern. For the wuxia tale, Hou and his writers take inspiration from a short story entitled Nie Yinniang (聶隱娘) in the collection Legendary Tales (傳奇) by Tang dynasty scribe Pei Xing (裴鉶).

The characters and plots were originally constructed to fuel the filmmakers’ vision, but a considerable amount of material was eventually left on the cutting-room floor. Dialogue is minimized so that characters express their complex emotions cinematically.

But this requires patience from the viewer. The characters, speaking classical Chinese, move from one exquisitely composed frame to another. They whisper behind fluttering curtains and flickering candle flames, stand in solitude on precipitous clifftops obscured by mist or disappear slowly toward the lush horizon.

The cinematographer, Mark Lee (李屏賓), has chosen not to concentrate on the characters themselves, but to locate them within the larger landscape. Lee prefers the classic ratio instead of the wide-screen format because it more eloquently expresses the director’s vision.

Hou clearly didn’t intend to make a conventional epic. It’s not so much about the narrative and plot, as it is about the people. As with Cafe Lumiere (珈琲時光, 2003) and Flight of the Red Balloon (2007), The Assassin is about a heroine’s quest.

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