Thursday, October 8, 2015

Wuxia of a Different Kind

The Assassin (2015) - Hou
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The Assassin plays out like a overly conscious filmmaker going over the script of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and say, "OK, we will do complete opposite of what's written here, line by line." But it's Hou Hsiao Hsien. So you know he is aiming for something else entirely.

There is a complicated plot set in 8th Century Tang dynasty, in the region of Weibo where the talk of revolt against the imperial court is brewing. There is a love story somewhere and a beautiful assassin Yinniang (Shu Qi) wrecking havoc. In a beautiful crisp black and white intro, Yinniang is seen cutting her target's throat who's mounted on a horse in blinding seconds. Again, it being Hou's wuxia, action sequences are brief and often cut abruptly by the following scene without any resolution. Yinniang was taken and trained by a nun princess (the backstory we only briefly hear about) who chides not for her swords skills but the resolve in her heart because she refuses to kill intended targets when they are with their children. Just as fleetingly as the flow of the film, Yinniang is assigned to kill her cousin/childhood sweetheart Tian (Chang Chen), the governor of Weibo. Would she fulfill her mission? Or is it ever a point of the film?

Watching the Assassin is like watching the river flowing down in autumn sunset. You were watching an object reflected in golden sunlight just above the surface of the water all the way on the right corner of your eye, you were mesmerized by the sparkling, undulating water and before you realized that the object was flowing down the river all the way to the left corner of your eye and one hour and forty minutes have gone by. Hou is the kind of director who's more interested in steam rising from the ornate bathtub than his actress's beautiful naked body. His decisions are so efficient, yet it conveys everything any costume melodramas convey, without corny tears, excessive expositions and phony intrigue. He doesn't need to show the wounded bare back of Yinniang for emotional effect. We already know she is a kick-ass assassin and she will get over it with some Chinese herb patch. Sumptuously shot on film in full frame by Hou's regular cinematographer Mark Pin-Bing Lee, The Assassin is rapturously gorgeous. Shu Qi looks amazing in her black Assassin's outfit. Marvelously elegant in its simplicity and subtlety The Assassin is a true beauty to behold.

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