The weapon of the advocate is the sword of the soldier, not the dagger of the assassin!

The camera can be the most deadly weapon since the assassin’s bullet, or, it can be the lotion of the heart

Norman Parkinson

The Assassin (2105) 
Also known as
Cìkè Niè Yǐnniáng
Action,   Melodrama,   Thriller,  Wuxia
Written by
Hou Hsiao-hsien 
Directed by
Hou Hsiao-hsien 
Country of Origin
Taiwan   &   China   &   Hong Kong 
Running time
105 minutes 

oh! … background

The Assassin is loosely based on “Niè Yǐnniáng” is a short story written in Classical Chinese by Pei Xing, a core text in Chinese swordsmanship and wuxia fiction. Pei Zing was a Chinese writer who lived during the Tang Dynasty. The story is set in 9th century China and tells the tale story of Nie Yinniang, a woman who was trained in the martial art from a young age. She was the daughter of Nie Feng, a general under the command of the Tang Dynasty’s famous Tian Ji’an.

oh! … brief

Unlike the book, the film is set in 8th century China during the last years of the Tang Dynasty and focuses on the character Nie Yinniang who has been trained as an assassin by Jiaxin, the nun who also raised her from early childhood.  When Nie Yinniang displays mercy to a potential victim she has been ordered to annihilate, Jiaxin punishes her with a ruthless assignment designed to test Yinniang’s resolve. She is sent to the distant provincial circuit of Weibo in northern China to kill the military governor Tian Ji’an (her cousin and a man she was formerly betrothed to.)

oh! … talks film

This film is painfully slow moving but this allows the audience to appreciate every single frame of every single scene, in all its aesthetic beauty, and, the word beauty is almost appropriate to use in context with this production.

Taiwanese master auteur, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, has honoured the foundation and tradition of wuxia (a long-held Chinese genre of nomadic champions of moral conscience and duty) with this film.

As both writer and director, he held steadfast in maintaining the mystery of anti-hero Nie Yinniang. The screenplay is simple both in the story and narrative dialogue. Nie Yinniang’s punishment is forced upon her to break her stubborn spirit and moral conscience. The writing behind the anti-hero is tremendous – she is portrayed as a strong, silent type, who uses few words and prefers to be mostly invisible- hiding in the shadows, the rafters, or behind curtains, listening, there one minute, gone the next, and for all the intrigue, this paints her as a more lethal threat than resentful erstwhile fiancée. It’s brilliant!

The cleverly crafted dialogue, while read as obtuse, is necessary, not only to leading and progressing the composition but also to amplifying and elaborating the context without resorting to common and overused flashback scenes. Hou Hsiao-Hsien understands that the most penetrating technique he can use to paint his story, is to impress the past on the audience in the present, having his characters simply reveal their individual stories, such as when Lord Tian discloses the story and importance of the two matching jade split rings.

The overarching atmosphere is fragile and the actions of all the characters are graceful, yet funereal. These aspects lend themselves well to the touching story that unfolds. Caught between duty and basic human decency, Yinniang must face her demons and choose her path in life.

The painstaking choreography of each chase, fight, and sword-fight was

Emotionless acting is unique for this type of film, but under Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s exceptional writing and direction, the audience can read the emotions from the carefully arranged lighting, surrounding scenery, and the astounding quietness, only interrupted by thrumming drum beats and plaintive birdsong.

Hou Hsiao-Hsien is known for producing precise films of different time periods and featuring modern cities this is his first classical wuxia period production, a masterpiece, following an extended absence from the industry. His personal interpretation of eighth century Weibo is visually breathtaking. Brilliantly green forests, misty silver-garlanded pools, and stunning sunsets used for exterior scenes and contrasted by lavishly detailed production design of ornately brocaded, flimsily curtained and dark wood furniture light by flickering candles for the interior. Cinematographer, Mark Lee Ping Bing captured it all on 35mm film. Mark Lee Ping ‘s cameras balanced colour and texture in every scene and his artistry design harmony is as sharp today as it was when he first started his career. His provocative camerawork is best in this film when he captures the provocative and sensual interactions between Lord Tian and either his wife or his concubine. Using the gentle swaying of transparent curtains only heightens the allure. It was spectacular! Also, the distinction between the film’s overture in high-contrast biting black-and-white and its epilogue in vibrant colour was astute!

Hwarng Wren-Ying, the costume designer, wrapped each female character in extravagantly bejewelled, or embroidered yuanlingshan and the male counterparts in equally dashing but somewhat more muted embroidered yuanlingshan. The wardrobes were appealing and details to hairpieces and jewellery were not overlooked or excessive either.

Along with the solid drum beats, Lim Giong’s musical score uses the zither. The sounds both pulsating and ethereal are at once earthly and unearthly. I wish I could find the soundtrack on Spotify but as yet no such luck.

Perhaps the least obvious, but one of the best aspects of the film are the cast, all calculatingly chosen for their specific individual roles, but, also for their chemistry as a group.

Nie Yinniang, the titular assassin, played by Shu Qi, was a polished and stealthy adversary. Shut Qi delivered a compelling and ambiguous performance. Shu Qi’s inscrutable face is far more potent than any single line she delivers. She inhabited her character, interpreted the fabled charm and dual personalities of her character, seamlessly – the banished princess and the vengeful relative. The charm in watching Shu Qi wrestle with her character’s inner dialogue is that you’re never able to sense if she will become the murderer she is trained to be, or if she will demonstrate clemency. The minimal dialogue sets a strong impression that this role was more ceremonial and the acting is not acting, but, instead, posing.

The on-screen chemistry between Shu Qi and Chang Chen was not as electric as the chemistry between Shi Qi and Fang-Yi Sheu.

Chang Chen played Tian Ji’An, Nie Yinniang’s cousin, formerly affianced and military governor. Chang Chen was good at juggling the layered character, who juggles his political aspirations alongside the jealousy of his wife for his pregnant concubine. Chang Chen was alluring, whether sparring, playing politics, or dancing. It was an understated performance.

Lady Tian, the jealous wife of Tian Ji’an was played by Zhou Yun. She made me think of a pretty ornament on display. Zhou Yun was perfect in her role and images of a woman clinging to

I was impressed by Satoshi Tsumabuki’s performance as the mirror polisher, but. That’s no surprise. This Japanese man is a skilled actor, with multiple performances under his belt, not to mention, awards.

oh! … sidekick

Besides Shu Qi, my favourite performance was by Fang-Yi Sheu who played Princess Jiacheng (Jiaxin) who turned Taoist nun and raised Nie Yinniang as a lethal assassin. Fang-Yi Sheu disguised the hatred of her character so well under a quiet, subdued performance. I loved the chemistry she shared with Shu Qi and that’s why these two women stole the show for me. The two women embodied their characters, and while the screenplay didn’t allow for melodramatic exhibitions, these two were mesmerising. Their quiet repose and the finesse in each of their gestures was frightening – both convinced me that at any second they could take my life and not break into a sweat.

oh! … that’s a wrap

The Assassin is undoubtedly an aesthetic gem and I could appreciate every single second of beauty and natural scenery, but, for me, this is not a repeat watch kind of film. I do recommend it, but warn anyone contemplating watching this to come with an open mind. The story is somewhat lost in the bare minimum of dialogue. The acting is great, but having so little to say, the characters don’t really act, they posture and address.

That, being said, the choreography of the fight scenes and wuxia aspects is phenomenal, as of course is the cinematography. If these appeal to you, you will certainly enjoy this production.

oh! … soundtrack

oh! … gallery

oh! … trailer

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