However much you enjoy Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin, will ultimately depend on how much you can appreciate its stunning, painterly visuals. This seventh-century-set martial arts film finds spectacle through its imagery as opposed to its fight sequences, rooted firmly in the natural landscapes of China.
The plot is fairly thin, focusing on an assassin who returns to her home village, tasked with the mission to kill political leader, Tian Ji’an. Having once been betrothed to Tian, the assassin must decide whether to obey her master or allow her past to cloud her emotions.
Much like the titular assassin, who is played by the brilliant and suitably understated Qi Shu, the film is quiet and reserved. Any form of action sequence is brief when compared to the much longer scenes of whispered discussion, which we often spy through a curtain blowing in the wind, or from the rafters of a hall, as if Hsiao-Hsien is letting us see events through the eyes of the central character.
Often, the deeper, more internal reading behind The Assassin feels frustratingly impenetrable, and so there are moments where it feels painfully slow. Whilst there’s a hint that something may be slowly boiling to the surface, with a recurring beating of a drum signalling tension and mood, nothing ever really comes if it. True to the end, The Assassin closes with a whimper, rather than a bang.
Yet, despite its flaws, there’s a lot to be said for the external side of the film, which has, undeniably, some of the best cinematography I’ve seen in quite some time, from Ping Bin Lee. Beginning with two short set-up sequences, the film almost feels like a film noir. It’s shot in black and white, and uses the trees as a way of creating mood through shadow and light.
It isn’t until colour comes into play, however, that the film really comes to life. As the title sits on top of an evening-lit lake which reflects the red skies from above, you can feel your eyes widening. They remain that way for the rest of the picture, as we get to see lush green forests and mist covered mountain peaks amongst other visual delights.
The Assassin is very much a film where surface is key. The narrative may not be very satisfying, but the way in which the shots are framed or focused, the costumes, the locations and the colours combine to make what is, first and foremost, a really good looking piece film-making. In this instance, that’s enough for me.
Image credit to http://www.impawards.com