Loosely based on a seventh-century Chinese folk tale, The Assassin concerns royal executioner Yinniang, who has a crisis of conscience during the dying embers of the Tang Dynasty, when the Emperor tried to regain control over increasingly defiant provinces.
The first thing to report is that the film is one of the most superbly shot in recent memory, and really must be seen on a big screen. Filmed in mostly Academy ratio 1:33 format, the extra height allows director Hou Hsiao-Hsien and cinematographer Ping Bin Lee some truly magnificent compositions. From the opening monochrome prologue to the dazzling title card shot – a melancholy sunset over a pond – to candlelit interiors where figures are glimpsed lurking behind veils, and spectacular outdoor images of silver birch, cliffs, mountains, mist covered rivers and remote settlements in both golden sunlit and bleak winter landscapes, this is the textbook definition of achingly beautiful.
Featuring impeccable, restrained performances, The Assassin certainly will test the patience of some audiences, especially those expecting an action packed saga akin to Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon or Zhang Yimou’s Hero or House of Flying Daggers. This is a much quieter affair, though no less effective in its very limited fight scenes. In fact, they are arguably all the more dramatic for being interspersed with long but compelling tableaux sequences of silence or slow conversation, often consisting of lingering static shots.
Themes of honour, love vs duty and political skulduggery are all intriguingly explored, along with a hint of black magic and the supernatural. That said the plot can be a touch hard to follow at times, with exposition taking a backseat to atmosphere. The symbolism of plants, costumes and colour may also be lost on western viewers unfamiliar with the cultural semiotics in tales of this kind. However, even if you lose your way a little with the story and symbolism, this is a subtle and sublime film worth getting lost in. Not one for the casual cinemagoer perhaps, but definitely highly recommended to the seasoned cineaste.