|Shu Qi in Hou Hsiao-Hsien's The Assassin.|
The Assassin, the latest film from Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien is, bafflingly, one of the best reviewed foreign language films of 2015. (The British film magazine Sight & Sound ranked it as the best film of 2015, based on a poll of 168 critics from around the world.) Much of that praise, no doubt, comes from the consistently high (and sometimes deserved) esteem his films are held in – but even by those lights, his atypical martial arts epic, which comes out on DVD in North America on Jan. 26, is a failure, utterly undeserving of the fulsome raves it’s garnered from the critical establishment. Yes, it looks ravishing – courtesy of ace cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bing (In the Mood for Love, 2000; Renoir, 2012) – and it is intelligently conceived, but it’s also a dull slog through a time and place Hou fails to do proper justice to.
Set in 8th century China, during the Tang dynasty, it opens with the beautiful assassin Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi) failing to kill her target, suffering a crisis in nerve by showing mercy to the man. Her punishment, meted out by Jiaxin, the nun who raised her from a child, is to kill her cousin Tian Ji'an (Chang Chen), the military governor of Weibo, in Northern China. The other catch, Nie used to be engaged to him before political machinations dictated he marry someone else.
This likely sounds more enticing than it is, namely because Hou, as befits his studious intellectual mien, underplays the drama and fails to effectively pump up the action, a weakness which marred even his most emotionally potent film, Daughter of the Nile (1987). There is none of the charged (and necessary) kinetic energy that an actor like Jackie Chan (The Legend of Drunken Master, 1984) or a filmmaker like Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2000) would have brought to the table, leaving Hou to impress with his, no doubt, realistic depiction of the (so called) actions unfolding but lulling the viewer with inert set pieces in the process. (There’s practically no need to bring up the Japanese master of martial arts epics, the late great Akira Kurosawa or his Seven Samurai: The Assassin doesn’t begin to evoke that indelible 1954 masterpiece).
|Chang Chen in Hou Hsiao-Hsien's The Assassin.|
Hou does generally spare the audience his often overlong takes but his decision to shoot most of the martial arts scenes in long shots also reduces them, for the most part, to ineffectiveness. The other action sequences are all in excessive close ups, which also doesn’t help. His decision to begin the film in black and white before switching to colour and filming mostly in full frame, except in one scene where a close up of a flower blossoms to a wide screen, may have a point (the black and white starkness of Nie’s options, the life choices that don’t allow her to blossom herself) but they’re still distracting, cinematic parlour tricks that add nothing germane to the story. And while it might have seemed a good idea to make Nie, a Hamlet-like killer prone to indecisiveness, as plot fodder for a martial arts movie it can’t help but render most of the film stillborn.
That leaves the actors (Shu Qi and Chang Chen acted opposite teach other in 2005 in Hou’s Three Times, one of his livelier efforts) to do their best but here again, Hou’s deliberate slow pacing and spare plotting don’t allow them to shine as fully flashed out protagonists, much less give them anything much to do on screen. (There are four writers credited to the movie – Hou, Chu Tien-wen, Hsieh Hai-Meng and Zhong Acheng – which is astounding, as so little of real consequence ever happens in The Assassin.) And while the film’s final scene is provocative, offering up a fascinating explanation for Nie’s chronic hesitancy, it’s still a case of too little, too late. Unlike most martial arts epics, even the bad ones, which at least compensate with a camp quality (often courtesy of bad subtitling), The Assassin, beautifully shot though it is, makes little lasting impression. In the ways that count the most, it’s an utter misfire.
LIFE Institute, where he has just concluded a course on documentary cinema.