The Assassin is a complicated story in its mysteriousness, the opaqueness of which is helped along by so many scenes in which the viewer must guess who the characters are and their roles in the high drama. Cinematography (Ping Bin Lee) is a big part of the production in its breathtaking shots of nature through which we see the action; with numerous scenes viewed through smoke, fog, and even sheer decorative fabrics. Landscapes are sweeping and mysterious. Taiwanese Director Hsiao-Hsien Hou won the prize for directing at Cannes earlier this year, and Giong Lim won for the soundtrack.
The setting is 9th Century China, when warring political forces were conflicted about central control of government versus local power. In the province of Weibo, a young female warrior (Nie Yinniang played by the lovely Qi Shu) and her family are inclined to make peace with the central control, as is Tian Ji’an (Chen Chang), the military head of Weibo. But his parents form a political alliance with a rival group by marrying their son to the other leader’s daughter (Yun), despite the fact that he was already betrothed to Yinniang. As a young child, Yinniang is sent to be trained by a nun called “The master”, Jiaxing (Sheu), in the rival faction. Yinniang becomes an excellent warrior, and when she is ready, The Master directs her to kill Tian Ji’an, whom the nun regards as having committed ruthless acts.
There is a major problem with this, which is that as good as she could be at it, Yinniang does not like to kill. Her master tells her, “Saintly virtues play no part in this. Your skills are matchless, but your mind is still hostage to human sentiment.”
Yinniang does set out to do her duty; however, when she comes upon Tian Ji’an with his son, her empathy for him and her belief that the region will devolve into chaos without a leader makes her walk away. This is despite Tian’s throwing a dagger at her back, which she turns and catches by the handle. During the film, she has numerous encounters with him and others ready to kill her, but she is so skillful at defense, she ends up walking away unharmed.
Although the pace of this film is very slow (one must be prepared simply to admire and enjoy the images), I loved the story of a young woman who knows her own mind and overcomes violence with her unmatched restraint and flawless defense. I understand that the issue of central control vs. local government has been in dispute for centuries in China; what better way is there to resolve the conflict then a powerful pacifist stance?
The swordsmanship shown in many encounters is like watching dancers exquisitely weaving around and coming into play with one another. Qi Shu is graceful and extremely quick in deflecting what could be fatal blows. Chen Chang portrays a leader in conflict, prone to lose his temper, but proving his strong leadership while still being an adoring father to his son.
An artistic and heart-stirring picture of the martial arts in action in 9th Century China.
Grade: B By Donna R. Copeland