The Assassin 





Hou Hsiao-Hsien is the latest major Far Eastern filmmaker to turn to the martial arts genre but is the acclaim for his film justified?


In its January edition, the magazine Sight & Sound published the results of a poll of 168 international film critics who voted The Assassin the best film seen in 2015. So how can I give it such a low rating? But let’s put it another way: how can they give it such high praise?


Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) was enormously successful at making a martial arts tale appeal to a wider audience than usual and Zhang Yimou’s House of the Flying Daggers (2004) was sumptuously beautiful. But the film that I had in mind when approaching The Assassin was Wong Kar-Wai’s underestimated 2013 production The Grandmaster. That was pure martial arts and yet the panache, the visual elegance and the music used created  a surface so dazzling that it delighted for its own sake. However, The Assassin is something very different: beautiful, certainly, but with fight scenes that, however well choreographed, are so brief that fans of the martial arts genre could well be disappointed.


Assassin, The

If looks could kill: Shu Qi


What we have instead is a film that plays like a classic work of Chinese culture set in the 9th century. After an odd beginning filmed in black and white and using the old Academy ratio, the tale that unfolds is of a female assassin (Shu Qi) who, following one successful mission and one from which she has drawn away, is given a new task: to kill her cousin Lord Tian (Chang Chen) who had married another despite having once been betrothed to her. That much is clear, but the history of the period is difficult to grasp and characters are not easily identified (some are long unnamed and when names are used we often don’t know to whom they refer). I had heard before the screening that the story was not easy to follow, but that is an understatement.


Be it the photography, the action of the lead roles or other elements (I was particularly impressed by Hou’s masterly use of sound including drumming and, indeed, silence), there is quality work in The Assassin. However, the artistry only adds to the sense of frustration felt when one is faced by a story that ought to be seriously meaningful but turns out to be impenetrable. At the screening I attended a clearly exasperated BAFTA member unknown to me was driven to ask if I had been able to understand what we had just seen. Can a film that fails to communicate to that extent be considered acceptable, let alone the best film to emerge in 2015?




Cast: Shu Qi, Chang Chen, Zhou Yun, Ni Da-Hong, Yong Mei, Lei Zhen-Yu, Hseih Hsin-Ying, Ethan Juan, Sheu Fang-yi, Tsumabuki Satoshi, Jacques Picoux.


Dir Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Pro T.H. Tung, Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Chen Yi-Qi, Screenplay Zhong A-Cheng, Chu Tien-Wen and Hsieh Hai-Meng, Ph Mark Lee Ping-Bing, Pro Des Hwarng Wern-Ying, Ed Liao Ching-Song, Paulie Huang and Chih Chia, Music Lim Giong, Costumes Hwarng Wern-Ying.


Spotfilms/Sil-Metropole Organisation/Central Motion Picture International Corp.-StudioCanal.
106 mins. Taiwan/Hong Kong/China. 2015. Rel: 22 January 2016. Cert. 12A.