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