The Assassin reaction: Cannes 2015

Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s is a beautiful but slow-moving martial arts epic. Here’s Jamie Graham’s reaction…

If your idea of a cracking martial arts movie is something starring Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme or Steven Seagal, chances are you’ll be shocked, then bored silly, by Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin (Nie Yinniang). Indeed, even those familiar with the wuxia sub-genre (best known examples in the West include Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Yimou Zhang’s Hero and House Of Flying Daggers, and Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster) will need to recalibrate expectations – this intimate, intricate tale set in the 9th Century during the Tang Dynasty, is more smitten with words than swords, while languid pacing and painterly compositions favour mood over mayhem.

The slight yet opaque plot concerns the titular Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), stolen from her family as a child and moulded into the deadliest of killers. Her targets are corrupt officials, and she is now tasked with returning to the mainland district of Weibo, where she grew up, to murder Lord Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen), the cousin to whom she was once betrothed in an effort to stabilise relations between Weibo and the Imperial Court.

Shu cuts an imposing and altogether mesmerising figure clad all in black, but Hou resists treading the expected path of making her a kick-ass heroine intent on roaring and rampaging, a la Quentin Tarantino’s The Bride, Toshiya Fujita’s Lady Snowblood and many others. He instead opts to shoot action sequences with minimum fuss and maximum efficiency, the scuffles done and dusted before they’ve hardly began. Much of the ‘spectacle’ is glimpsed or suggested through the twangs of bowstrings, the thuds of arrows and the swishes of blades, though that which we do see is so skilfully choreographed as to indicate Hou might have thrilled viewers desiring extendedly kinetic set-pieces should he have wished to do so. But then the vital director of Millennium Mambo and Three Times (both also with Shu) was never going to adhere to the genre’s tried-and-tested rules or risk glamourising bloodshed.

Such obliqueness will no doubt frustrate many. Those who don’t feel cheated, however, can bathe not in blood but rather sublime formal rigour as Hou and his regular DoP Mark Lee Ping Bing serve up exquisite composition after exquisite composition. Certainly the most beautiful film in competition, The Assassin is the cooling, soothing filmic equivalent of slipping into a lake at dawn. Candles gleam. Silver tendrils of mist dance on water. Trees of the most brilliant green sway in wind. Blossoms tumble. Iridescent gowns and diaphanous curtains of heart-stopping effulgence shimmer and sashay.

All this aesthetic beauty, accompanied by the soft heartbeat of a drum or the delicate strum of a zither, is movie as meditation, making The Assassin unlike anything else at Cannes. It must surely feature among the prizes.

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