After nearly a decade in development, renowned Taiwanese auteur Hou Hsiao-Hsien brings his foray into martial arts film with this very grounded film that is driven by a stellar performance by lead actress Shu Qi.
In 9th-Centuty China, Nie Yianning is a young woman who since the age of ten, was raised by a princess turned Taoist nun, Jiaxin. Jiaxin has trained Nie to train in the arts of assassination. However, Nie is only assigned to kill corrupt officials. When she refuses to kill one such governor because she was moved by his young son, Jiaxin is compelled to tell Nie that while she is good with her skills, her heart is still plagued by human emotions. To test Nie, she sends her back to her childhood home of Weibo Province to kill Governor Tian Ji’an. However, Tian and Nie have quite a history together.
Tian Ji’an was once to be betrothed to Nie, until Tian’s mother, Princess Jiacheng, had decided that the Weibo Province and the Imperial Court was to forge an alliance through Tian marrying someone from the Court. This results in a betrayed Nie being taken in by Jiaxin. However, Nie learns that Tian is being set up to be escorted to take over a new post, but is to be ambushed by a possible rival in Xue Chaocheng. When Nie’s father, the Provost of the area, learns of his daughter’s skills, he admits regrets for letting Jiaxin take her in, but sees that Nie could actually be an asset to Tian, even though Tian knows that Nie is back in town with the intent to murder him. How will the complicated lives of these two turn out in the end?
Director Hou Hsiao-Hsien has not made a film in the past seven years because he has been working hard on developing this film. He has always wanted to make a martial arts film, but he had to make sure it was perfect in terms of his vision. He has finally unleashed this film, based on the Pei Xing novel Nie Yinniang, which is the name of our central character. What he has brought is a martial arts film that isn’t close to being a mindless action film, but a deeply emotional tale of one assassin and her decisions as to where her heart belongs.
Shu Qi and director Hou work well together, this being their third collaboration (following 2001’s Millennium Mambo and 2005’s Three Times). It seems if there is one director who can help Shu Qi hone some great acting skills, it is Hou and this film is perhaps Shu Qi’s best performance to date. As the titular “assassin”, Shu brings Nie as a woman torn between her job of killing and her humanity. Interestingly enough, Chang Chen plays Nie’s one betrothed and current target, Tian Ji’an. While he boasts about Nie to his concubine Hu Ji, played by Hsieh Hsin-Ying, it is clear that Tian has truly moved on and no longer sees Nie as someone he loves. While he was in a forced marriage in a wasted effort to unify the Imperial Court and the Weibo Province, Tian truly seems to have found his true love in Hu Ji.
Sheu Fang-Yi performs really well in the dual roles of Tian’s mother Jiacheng and Nie’s martial arts teacher, Jiaxin. While we see Jiacheng in flashback scenes, it is the role of Jiaxin which Sheu brings a sense of being a stern teacher who tells Nie not to let her emotions get in the way of getting the job done. Zhou Yun does quite well as Lady Tian as well while Japanese actor Satoshi Tsumabaki does a great job as a mirror polisher who gets himself involved in the impending battle between the Court and the Weibo Province.
Those expecting an abundance of wirework and memorable fights will heavily be disappointed as this is not what director Hou has envisioned. There is very little wire assistance in the film’s action scenes with a more grounded feel to them but they are done quite swiftly to bring a depth to the actual story. Perhaps the only flaw of this entire film is that while the action scenes are sporadic, the film tends to move at a sluggish pace and if you aren’t here to enjoy the story, you actually might find yourself quite bored with the final result. If you are looking for a combination of a deep story mixed in with some action here and there, this could be your film.
The Assassin is a very deep and moving story, despite a somewhat sluggish pace overall. However, the film’s grounded action scenes and the performances of the cast, especially Shu Qi and Sheu Fang-Yi, make this one a definite watch on screen.
WFG RATING: A-
A Spotfilms Co. Ltd. production in association with Central Motion Pictures International Corp. and Sil-Metropole Organisation Ltd. Director: Hou Hsiao-Hsien. Producers: Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Liao Ching-Song, Ren Yue, Stephen Shin, Cheung Hong-Fat, and Stanley Tong. Writers: Zhong A-Cheng, Chu Tien-Wen, and Hsieh Hsi-Meng; based on the novel “Nie Yinniang” by Pei Xing. Cinematography: Mark Lee. Editing: Liao Chang-Song.
Cast: Shu Qi, Chang Chen, Zhou Yun, Satoshi Tsubamaki, Ethan Juan, Hsieh Hsin-Ying, Ni Dahong, Yong Mei, Sheu Fang-Yi.