Movie Review: The Assassin (刺客聶隱娘)

Qi Shu is The Assassin.
Qi Shu is The Assassin.

The Assassin is one movie from the VIFF I missed out on. It’s a shame because there’s a lot of buzz that it may be nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign language Film category. I had the good fortune to see it being repeated just two weeks later.

Nie Yinniang is a female assassin from the Tang Dynasty of the 8th Century A.D. Yinniang has always been good at carrying out her duties as an assassin and is very loyal to the orders given by Jiaxin, a nun who has raised her since the age of ten.

However she faces a new task as Jiaxin orders her to kill corrupt government officials. However each time she is sent, she displays mercy. Even if she assaults them, she does not kill them. This especially infuriates Jiaxin and she gives her a final assignment to test her loyalty. She is sent to the Northern Chinese province of Weibo where she is ordered to kill Tian Ji’an: her cousin she has once been betrothed to. Even before she is sent on that mission, she had heard news that Tian’s wife was pregnant. The ending does come as one would expect but it comes off as fitting for the film.

There was a time when the film was labeled reminiscent of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I’ll admit before I myself came to the movie, I also had the same hopes. It is in a lot of ways where one is taken back to the China of the past, the film has a mythic feel of its own and the film has a female fighter. However the film isn’t as much of an epic, it isn’t full of a big score nor does it have the big fights featured in Crouching Tiger. Some people also expecting the same action may be disappointed and find the film moves at too slow of a pace.

Now enough of what The Assassin isn’t. What it is is a very picturesque film that is a reminder of many mythological tales of the ancient past set in ancient China. Here it is a story where an assassin trained to kill is tested between what she is commanded to do and what she knows is right in her heart. Yes, she’s capable of carrying out her actions in surely an action-packed manner but her true rival is actually her conscience. Some people may become a bit impatient in waiting for the next fight scene but the fights are not the top focus. It’s the story and the perceived slowness is actually meant to remind us of the intensity of the situation.

This is a very good work from veteran Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien. He is already an accomplished director in his own right with A City of Sadness winning the Golden Lion at the 1989 Venice Film Festival and five previous films being entered at Cannes Film Festivals of the past. This film won him the Best Director award at this year’s Cannes Festival. It’s evident to see why as he makes careful decisions here both in directing and co-writing with three other writers on how to not just have the audience watch the story but also feel the feeling of the main protagonist. He did a very good job here.

Also adding to the quality of the story is Shu Qi. she is an accomplished actress back in Hong Kong and her experience is shown in her ability to make the character of Yinniang work for the story. Chang Chen also does a good job as the nun who seeks vengeance. The costuming and sets, both natural and constructed, fit the film beautifully and perfectly and give it the right setting for the story. Lim Giong didn’t have too much of a score in the film but it fit the film well.

I also chose to see The Assassin because it was a film with very good chances of earning and Oscar nomination in the Best Foreign Language Film category. It had already earned nominations in that category for the Golden Satellite and Critics Choice awards. Less than two weeks ago, the Oscar shortlist of nine for that category was revealed and it did not make the cut. However don’t rule it out in terms of the categories of Production Design, Cinematography, Costuming and Make-Up.

The Assassin isn’t an epic as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is nor is it as action-packed as many would hope. Nevertheless it is a very good story and it is put together well. I’m impressed.


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