More noise than signal

The Assassin

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

Hsiao-Hsien Hou is a highly celebrated director whose works have been on my “to-watch” list for some time, however I think this is the first film of his I’ve actually caught up with. It’s being pushed as a redefinition of the wushu genre, ala Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or House of the Flying Daggers, which I don’t think is entirely the case, but at any rate I’m getting ahead of myself. Nie Yinniang (Qi Shu), taken from her parents as a child and raised to be a peerless assassin, however after suffering a sudden attack of morals and refusing to kill a target in front of his son, she’s sent back to the province of her birth with orders to kill the man she had been promised in marriage to and seemingly still harbours feeling for, and a man in charge of the largest military forces in seventh century China.

It looks stunningly gorgeous. If this isn’t the most attractively shot film of the year then we’d need to see something truly extraordinary. To a degree it calls back to the previously mentioned films, with strong, bold, vibrant use of colour and painterly framing, often sedately held for some time, with Hou somewhat anachronistically using the Academy ratio giving it a very distinctive look. Visually it’s an absolute treat. I’m a sucker for this period, and the detail is incredible. The pacing, while sedate, held my attention, and the brief flurries of action are satisfying, and it’s adroitly acted.

Rather less edifying, I had only the loosest grasp on what was going on, and who most of the characters were, or their relation to each other. From the recaps, this doesn’t seem to be a particularly complex story and I like to think I’m savvy enough to follow plots of this nature, so I’m left unsure if this was just an off day for me or if the story is obfuscated somehow.

Perhaps more a criticism of the coverage of the film rather than the film itself, but I’m also not exceedingly clear as to why you would champion this as a redefining work in the wushu genre, unless you’re happy with “redefining” meaning “leaving most of the genre out entirely”. That’s a perfectly valid way to focus on the characters, acting performances, and the detail of the period – but it then makes it a drama with occasional wushu elements, not a wushu film. It’d be like “redefining” the Fast and Furious franchise by removing cars from the next film and making it about dirigibles. And while I’m entirely on board with such an airship based outing, calling it a Fast & Furious film would be perverse.

For me at least, the positives well outweigh the negatives, and I can recommend it on the aesthetic level alone – and if you’re less of a dummy than I am you may even like the plot as well.