|'Many segments have obvious narrative links but the most delightful are those that do not. A golden-masked character, who appears without explanation, could be friend, foe, motif, physical presence or mythical interloper.'|
There's a fairly easy to see critical/consumer divide with regard to The Assassin (look at its IMDb rating vs Rotten Tomatoes), something which you can't help but feel is primarily down to the film's title. If you call something 'The Assassin', there's a level of expectation. Not only will the film have a level of action and adventure, but it will also be the definitive depiction thereof. The Assassin is not that film (though there is an argument that it is a version of that film) and contained within that fact is part of the problem; this a sometime sleepy, melancholic look at the life of an assassin, not designed necessarily to wow in the same way as, say, 1995's Assassins, which manages to lack both the definitive article and some much needed definition.
In fact, The Assassin is about as far away from Assassins as you could get whilst still comfortably saying that we're in the same genre. Titular definitive assassin Nie Yinniang (Qi Shu) accepts a mission from her mentor to kill local politician Tian Ji'an (Chen Chang), whom she happens to be related to. Struggling with the morals of her mission, Nie Yinniang observes and interacts with her quarry during a period of political upheaval.
The fact that the film is located so centrally around the politics of seventh-century China will also present a barrier to entry to all but the most learned viewers. There is a level of 'go with it' needed, particularly during the earlier moments to understand what every machination means to the main players. Stick with it though and things do get clearer on some levels, as do the film's own politics. You cannot set a film this centrally around the rules of government and not at least hint at a message. Director Hou Hsiao-Hsien eventually leads us to a place where you can read into The Assassin a negative message about being used as the state's tool. There's something incendiary about that, particularly for a Chinese director, working in China, which lends the film an exciting frisson of contextual undercurrent.
Hsiao-Hsien's choice around how to depict his narrative - a series of vignette-like scene collections, sometimes with little obvious link to the last one - allows his visuals to flourish. Each segment of the film has style, sometimes distinctly so, such as the opening prologue, which is presented in glorious black and white and an Academy-like ratio. In some of the segments, high-contrast landscapes beam at the camera for a lazy afternoon's-worth of time. In others radiantly upholstered interiors glow from static cameras. Many segments have obvious narrative links but the most delightful are those where the director leaves his audience to fill in the blanks. A golden-masked character, who appears without explanation, could be friend, foe, motif, depiction of inner struggle, physical presence or mythical interloper. It frequently works and only occasionally fails; a fight shot from a distance gives an accurate depiction of the chaos Nie Yinniang's presence brings, a long conversation shot through a lace curtain is frustrating and brings nothing to the table.
The Assassin comes to embody fundamental questions about cinema. Can or should a film be seen for 'visuals alone'? How much structure do we need in our narratives? Can distancing from established convention still produce traditional satisfaction? Perhaps those make for weightier questions than you want from your Friday night viewing choice, but look hard enough and there is mainstream satisfaction here too. Excluding a few failed 'tricks', this is both prime cut and critical darling; self-contained success and cinematic conversation starter in one.
The Assassin is out on UK DVD and Blu-ray from Monday 23rd May 2016.