The Woman in Black
A Film Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
The Assassin is a quiet film, a methodical experience whose every beat lies in an assured, measured beat. It’s a sharp contrast to what the general audience may expect from a film with such a title and what it expects from a martial arts experience as a whole. Assassin, to its immense benefit and likewise detriment, is exceedingly minimalistic. There’s no over the top fight choreography that made me groan outwardly, no unnecessary dialogue (except for one glaringly poorly written scene), a feeling that there was overstuffed material to its detriment, or the usual trumpeting score that permeates so loudly that your eardrums burst. Yet there’s a feeling that the film is simply too detached to reach its full potential. Simple observations from a camera can be a fascinating way to tell a story. Adaptations of John le Carré’s novels, for example, rely on a certain amount of detachment to tell their tales of espionage well. Every expression is meaningful, every little hand movement is supposed to mean something, and for that to work properly, the camera can’t give anything away. It simply has to observe. But the narrative has to delve into the characters themselves or it retains a fascinating, hollowing shell (A Most Wanted Man is a great example of minimalism being imbued with an emotional construct). As the final frame of director Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s camera departs from the beautiful valleys it captures, there’s a sense of euphoria but also a feeling of profound emptiness.
The plot card at the beginning lays the political byzantium out, setting in motion a labyrinth that is as clear as light at times while becoming profoundly befuddling at others. The Tang Dynasty of eighth century China was an empire that had reached its middle point, collapsing at the hands of a peasant rebellion (a key theme throughout the history of Imperial China) in 907 in the midst of blood, chaos, and the infamous Guangzhou Massacre. The Tang Dynasty, weakening in the second half of its existence (from about 750 C.E. onwards), nevertheless is hailed as a high point in Chinese history. A cosmopolitan culture flourished in part due to the Tang’s conquering of a decent chunk of the Silk Road trade route, which allowed for a massive degree of information to filter in and out of the kingdom. As is often the case with empires, however, the Tang’s expansion that brought in that cosmopolitan nature and enormous amounts of wealth also made it significantly more difficult at its apex to control their territory. There were two distinct regions of the empire (one that occupies the eastern half of modern-day PRC and a western portion that occupied the modern-day Uyghur region) connected by a thin sliver. Knowing that their vast territory’s outermost borders would be difficult to control from their capital of Chang’an (now Xi’an), the outermost provinces were militarized. As time went on, however, the provinces began to realize that they had the military garrisons and that they had no necessity of bowing down to the Imperial Court.
The most infamous of these autonomous, rebelling “empires” was the province of Weibo, which occupied the modern-day province of Hebei and the surrounding regions. Powerful and a massive threat to the central authority of the Tang, Weibo’s ruling family decided that instead of honoring a marriage pact that carried the tradition of a Weibo-Imperial alliance, an alliance with a neighboring rebellious province would be more beneficial. That’s where the central plotline of The Assassin is borne. Tian Ji’an and Nie Yinniang were the two betrothed by two pieces of jade, but like all betrothals of political convenience, another marriage simply became more so. Raised from the age of ten by the Nun-Princess (you don’t hear that every day) Jiaxin, Yinniang was trained to become an assassin and to kill corrupt officials. At a key moment of her assassination, however, Yinniang falters and fails to kill her target. Jiaxin is notably displeased as she utters the key phrase of the entire film. “The way of the sword is merciless,” she says quietly and that in essence captures Yinniang’s journey from the first breathtakingly gorgeous shot to the last. At key moments throughout, there’s a consistent tension throughout the air, buoyed by the percussion beats of the largely minimal score from composer Lim Giong. At every one of those moments, you’re waiting for the knife to land and that that effect works so well is to the film’s immense credit.
The winner of The Assassin is Mark Lee Ping Bin’s scintillating cinematography. The film begins in a stark black and white before cutting to color when the real narrative stride hits. There’s a quiet scene between Ji’an and his wife Huji where the curtains suddenly fly away and the color bursts through the screen like a butterfly from its cocoon. Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s director efforts are sturdy and assured, if garnering a surprise win at the Cannes Film Festival for best director. His measured camera cuts buoy the picture’s sense of confidence, even if the script very much lacks it. The message of the strength of character in choosing peace over war is a strong one, but the rest of the script fails to match the power of that thematic construct. The script was helmed by four screenwriters, which perhaps didn’t help its cause. The narrative feels cluttered, as if the writers were jumping back and forth with the assumption that its audience had been keyed in on all of the narrative trickery. Sometimes studios feel pressures to simplify things for American audiences (like the debacle between Snowpiercer and Harvey Weinstein), which is ludicrous. The Assassin juggles so many characters that filter in and out that the narrative cracks underneath its own weight. Twists, betrayals, and shady figures remain so firmly entrenched in their shadows that they never truly coalesce onto the screen, rendering the narrative utterly bemusing at junctures where each twist of the knife or loosening of arrows ought to have hit the audience with an unforgiving sense of power. Most notably, the characterizations needed work to truly craft emotional resonance into the characters themselves. Huji, breaking the narrative rule of telling and not showing, notes that she feels for Yinniang. The unfortunate part is, the film rarely presents an opportunity for the audience to do the same.
Title: The Assassin
MPAA Rating: N/A
Directed by: Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Produced by: Yi-Qi Chen, Tai-Chiang Gou, Hsiao-Hsien Hou, Wen-Ying Huang, Peter Lam, Ching-Song Liao, producer (as Liao Ching-Sung), Kuen Lin, Tzu-Hsien Tung
Written by: Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Chu Tien-wen, Hsieh Hai-Meng, Zhong Acheng
Starring: Shu Qi, Chang Chen, Zhou Yun, Satoshi Tsumabuki
Music by: Lim Giong
Cinematography: Mark Lee Ping Bin
Edited by: Huang Chih-Chia
Production Company: Central Motion Pictures, China Dream Film Culture Industry, Media Asia Films, Sil-Metropole Organisation, SpotFilms, Zhejiang Huace Film & TV
Distributed by: Well Go USA (North America), StudioCanal (United Kingdom)
Running Time: 105 minutes
Release Dates: 28 August 2015 (Taiwan)
Image Courtesy: Roger Ebert.com