Posts tagged: wuxia

Just For Fun: Film Review – The Assassin

By , November 11, 2015

There are scenes from Hou Hsiao Hsien’s (pronounced Hoe See-ow See-en) new movie – The Assassin – that are breath-taking. As the camera silently holds the scene, you are transported – even if just for a moment – to the actual place: fog rises slowly off a lake on a cold fall morning; a group of itinerant government officials march on horseback to their new assignment, tiny against China’s karst mountains; in bright blues and reds, a grandfather sips his evening tea as the sun fades. It is these sublime scenes that justify Hou’s best director award at this year’s Cannes because, as one of my film companions noted, “the cinematography is quietly masterful” but at the same time, mind-blowing.

But if it is a simple story line that is your favorite part of a movie, you will be sorely disappointed. Every beautiful scene is matched with some ill-described plot development. The film opens in 9th century China with the return of Nie Yinniang to her family home after studying to become an assassin. For some reason – which never becomes clear – at a young age, Nie Yinniang was sent away to a nunnery where it turns out, the nun who took her in was trained in wuxia (martial arts and pronounced woo see-ya) and decided to use her talent to kill people. The nun instructs Nie Yinniang to avenge her family’s pride and assassinate Tian Ji’an. At some point, the movie attempts to explain why her family’s pride must be avenged, but as post-film conversations proved, none of us fully got that part.

Nie Yinniang contemplating her choices.

What develops next is Nie Yinniang’s internal struggle. She doesn’t want to kill Tian Ji’an but she is loyal to her nun-master who has instructed her to do so. It is this struggle, and all the female characters that propel this movie forward, that makes this a feminist movie. The male characters play second fiddle to their female counterparts while the women break traditional female roles.

But those excited to finally see a true feminist wuxia movie will also be disappointed. Unfortunately, wuxia is missing from a lot of the scenes. While Hou hearkens back to the golden age of wuxia – where the actors do their own stunts without strings and special effects – the wuxia is minimal, much like the plot line. As one film-goer and a wuxia fan dryly stated after the movie “this is a Hou Hsiao Hsien interpretation of a wuxia movie.”

No plotline, very little wuxia. But still a film worth seeing for the sheer beauty of every single scene. Hou is a master director who, in The Assassin has made every scene into a master painting.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

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The Assassin is still showing at select, “artsy” theaters throughout the United States.  Check Fandango to see if it is showing near you.

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