The As­sas­sin

Pasatiempo - - CONTENT - — Jonathan Richards

THE AS­SAS­SIN, drama, not rated, in Man­darin with sub­ti­tles ,The Screen,

3.5 chiles

Do you ex­pect in­tense ac­tion from a Chi­nese movie called The As­sas­sin? Do you ex­pect grav­ity-de­fy­ing, slow-mo­tion som­er­saults through the air, sword­play, mar­tial arts, and foun­tains of blood? You’ll get all that (ex­cept the blood) in this ex­tra­or­di­nary movie from Tai­wanese di­rec­tor Hsiao-Hsien Hou (Flow­ers of Shang­hai), but in minis­cule quan­ti­ties. Fists of Fury fans, stay home. The plea­sure in this quiet epic seems al­most hid­den at first, and its un­fold­ing fills the viewer with awe at Hou’s sub­tlety and dar­ing. The ex­pe­ri­ence is like walk­ing down a gallery of mag­nif­i­cent paint­ings and sud­denly be­com­ing aware that some­thing is mov­ing in each of them. The pace can ap­pear glacially slow, but within it things are con­stantly hap­pen­ing. Hou wraps ac­tion in still­ness and in­fuses still­ness with move­ment. Mist moves across the sur­face of a lake. Tiny dots of trav­el­ers in­trude upon a vast land­scape. Can­dles flicker in a still room. Gauzy cur­tains rus­tle. Steam drifts off a cup of tea.

As for the story, it bor­ders on the in­de­ci­pher­able, and it’s of­ten hard to tell the play­ers apart with­out a scorecard. The ac­tion is set in ninth­cen­tury China, dur­ing the Tang Dy­nasty. A young woman named Nie Yin­ni­ang (Qi Shu) has been groomed since child­hood to be an as­sas­sin, tar­get­ing cor­rupt of­fi­cials. Her in­struc­tor is a nun, Ji­axin (Fang-yi Sheu), who dresses all in white, while Yin­ni­ang dresses in black. The nun has taught her stu­dent’s hands to kill but has not suc­ceeded in fash­ion­ing a killer’s heart. Yin­ni­ang spares a vic­tim be­cause he has young chil­dren, and she is rep­ri­manded. As pun­ish­ment, she is sent back to her home court, the for­ti­fied prov­ince of Weibo, with or­ders to kill the man to whom as a child she was promised in mar­riage, the pro­vin­cial gover­nor Lord Tian Ji’an (Chen Chang). Weibo is an un­ruly prov­ince, and re­la­tions with the cen­tral gov­ern­ment are strained. Coun­selors weigh in with dif­fer­ent ap­proaches to the re­la­tion­ship, some urg­ing ap­pease­ment, oth­ers con­fronta­tion.

All this will no doubt be meat for schol­ars of the Tang Dy­nasty, but for the layper­son, it mostly pro­vides an ar­ma­ture on which to hang cin­e­matog­ra­pher Mark Lee Ping Bin’s rav­ish­ing com­po­si­tions, Hou’s pa­tiently planned para­ble, and the el­e­gant per­for­mances of the prin­ci­pals. The

As­sas­sin opens in stun­ning black-and-white pho­tog­ra­phy; when it moves to Weibo, it trans­forms, Oz-like, into muted color. There are iso­lated bursts of ac­tion when Yin­ni­ang con­fronts Lord Tian, but the drama feels more con­tem­pla­tive than vis­ceral, and the ex­cite­ment is in the moral­ity and aes­thet­ics of the mo­ment, not the hiss of the blade and the sun­der­ing of limb from limb.

Orig­ina lT ang :Q iShu

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