Featuring: Shu Qi, Chang Chen
Director: Hou Hsiao-hsien
Writers: Cheng Ah, T’ien-wen Chu, Hsiao-Hsien Hou, Hai-Meng Hsieh, Xing Pei
Australian release date: Thu 26 Nov
In a nutshell: Visually exquisite, but the story is obscure and hard to follow and this will be a hurdle for some.
The Assassin was awarded Best Direction at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, but if you’re expecting an arty Chinese martial arts flick along the lines of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon think again!
There are no mystical martial arts warriors defying gravity in extended elaborately choreographed fight scenes, the storyline is obscure and difficult to follow (unless you’re familiar with the 9th Century Tang Dynasty historical references from which it and the characters derive), and things progress exceedingly slowly via long takes.
Some will nod off (or walk out, as quite a few of the viewers did at the screening I attended), but allow yourself to be immersed in the truly exotic world of the film, and like me you may find yourself delighting in its sheer visual beauty and transported to a dream-like state.
Every frame is exquisitely composed, a cinematographic painting. There are weird and wonderful costumes, ancient otherworldly Eastern decor and architecture featuring hand-hewn wood and tiles, crimson curtains floating across the lens, at times casting a soft focus over the actors during the interior shots. The exterior settings take in the splendid natural beauty of the countryside, extraordinary lighting showing up its shapes and colours to often wondrous effect. Then there is the grace of movement of the striking titular character and her foes during the short but always dramatic and superbly rendered fight scenes…
With visuals as poetic, beautiful and brilliantly executed – as transfixing – as these, the story becomes secondary. That said, the lack of narrative exposition is a flaw that could have been addressed without compromising the artistic vision of the piece. I guess compromise is the operative word here. Director Hou Hsiao-hsien is clearly single-minded in his approach, and that is both the great strength and weakness of the film: he is telling a Chinese story and the way he has chosen to do it is – how can I put this? – culturally pure. That will put any non-Chinese viewer on the outer, in a sense. I found that vantage point fascinating. Whether you will, who knows? You’ll need to see this strange and gorgeous movie to find out.
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