The Assassin, film review: ‘Beautiful and intimate’

13:00 26 January 2016

The Assassin. Picture: Studio Canal

The Assassin. Picture: Studio Canal

Archant

Michael Joyce enjoys this perplexing but well-scaled martial arts film.

Director: Hsiao-Hsien Hou 
Starring: Qi Shu, Chen Chang, Satoshi Tsumabuki, Shao-Huai Chang, Nikki Hsin-Ying Hsieh and Ethan Juan 
Film Length: 106 mins

The Assassin is the kind of martial arts film where the wind rustling through the branches of a tree is as significant as a throat being slit. We are in the realms of Wuxia, the exaggerated melodramatic style popularised in the west by films like Crouching Tiger and House of Flying Daggers. But while they are full of po-faced heroes and ludicrously overblown action, The Assassin is pitched on a more recognisable human scale. The female killer (Qi Shu) springs silently across night-time rooftops, fights off armies of swordsmen single-handedly, meets her master at the edge of a mist-shrouded cliff face, but this is human level Wuxia – beautifully shot but more intimate than spectacular.

Taiwanese director Hsiao-Hsien Hou is from the art house tradition. His previous film, Flight of the Red Balloon, was a dull Paris-set bit of drifting whimsy featuring Juliette Binoche; just because he is filming a bit of the old Kung Fu doesn’t mean that he’s going to get into a tizzy of excitement. Or that you will have any idea what the hell is going on.

Most Chinese martial arts epics are only loosely followed by western audiences who get lost during the opening written prologue about the regional disputes of some ancient dynasty and can’t then match names to faces. Hou’s style is so elliptical and sparse that it is reckoned that it will take at least two or three sittings for Europeans to get it. After the first 15 minutes I was completely lost. But such is the intoxication of its languid visual style, I’m prepared to take it on trust that I sat totally perplexed through a great film.

Rating: 4/5 stars

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