With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013

With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013
With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

THE ASSASSIN reviewed; debuts on home video today

Well Go USA
 The Assassin / Nie yin niang
Directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien
Taiwan/China/Hong Kong/France, 2015, 105 minutes

The Assassin, Hou Hsiao-hsien's award winning martial arts themed art house film, debuts today on Blu-ray™, DVD and Digital HD from Well Go USA Entertainment. The film is based on a Tang Dynasty short story by Pei Xing entitled Nie Yinniang (the assassin's name) and earned Hou the Best Director award at last year's Cannes film festival, where it also received the Soundtrack Award for composer Gong Lim, who also contributed to the soundtrack to Hou's Millennium Mambo (2001). At the 2015 Golden Horse Film Festival, The Assassin was nominated in ten categories and received prizes for Best Director, Best Feature Film, Best Cinematography, Best Makeup & Costume Design and Best Sound Effects. It was Taiwan's official entry to the 2015 foreign-language Oscar race, but was not nominated.

I first saw the film last November at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center of the Film Society of Lincoln Center (where it is still playing) and recently watched the Blu-ray release from Well Go for this review.

Set in the ninth century, the film revolves around Nie Yinniang (Taiwan-born actress Shu Qi, who also starred in Hou's Millennium Mambo and Three Times) , a young woman who was taken from her family when she was ten years old and raised by a nun, Jiaxin, who trained her to be a master assassin who would righteously slay corrupt officials. After a twang of conscience stopped her from completing an assignment, Jiaxin takes Nie Yinniang back to Weibo, the land of her birth, and tasks her with killing Tian Ji'an (Chang Chen, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Grandmaster), to whom she was betrothed as a child. Will she complete her assignment or once again question the righteousness of her task?

Hou is not concerned with narrative and hence there is little dialogue. What the director and Mark Lee Ping Bin, Hou's director of photography, have produced in a visually stunning film, that comes close to being pure cinema, that is, a work devoted almost exclusively to the visual. It is pretty much all about the mood produced by lush images. Coherent story-telling is of little or no concern.

The golden-masked warrior (left) and Yinniang

Thus the film is often quite enigmatic. For example, after Nie Yinniang has reveled herself to Tian one night, there is a brief scene -- shot in daylight -- in which a female warrior with a golden mask is seen. One gets the impression that she is in the employ of Tian, but this is only an impression. Later this warrior and Yinniang meet in a forest and engage in combat. Just who this warrior is and why she confronts Yinniang are matters that Hou leaves to the viewers imagination; the film is about showing, not explaining.

Since this is nominally a wuxia ("martial hero" story, some attention must be paid to the fighting scenes. These tend to be brief, explosive bursts of energy that punctuate the slow pace that marks the vast bulk of the film. His actors and actresses are not really trained in the martial arts so extensive, complicated segments were not possible. Consequently the fight scenes tend to be marked by frequent and rapid editing. There is even one confrontation in which Yinniang fights several opponents that has an extensive portion filmed in an extremely long shot shot with much of the action taking place behind the trees seen in the distance!

For this reason, it seems that many viewers -- expecting a martial arts film at least along the lines of Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) or even Wong Kar-wai's The Grandmaster (2013) -- have come away disappointed.

So if you're after a martial arts slug-fest, you'd best look elsewhere.

But if you're in the mood for a visually stunning film that will transport you to an ethereal vision of ancient China, The Assassin will more than satisfy you.

Bonus Features Include:
-- Behind-the-Scenes (four short featurettes)
  --  Nie Yinniang
  -- The Actors: No Rehearsals
  -- The Fights Between Masters
  -- A Time Machine To The Tang Dynasty
-- Trailer

AsianCineFest Rating: 4 out of 4 stars as an art house movie; 2.0 out of 4 as a martial arts film

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