Let’s Get Reel: The Assassin

Kevin Doyle '16, Movie Columnist

The Assassin directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien is Taiwan’s entry this year for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards and has already managed to pick up the award for best director at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. One of the most misleading aspects of this movie is its billing as a “martial arts film” as many synopses and the trailer would have you believe. Though it definitely has elements of martial arts, the action scenes tend to be more grounded than Hong Kong wuxia films and are used sparingly. It is best to think of this film as a period piece focused on political and family intrigue.

The film is set in the Tang Dynasty-period, when the Imperial Courts were trying their best to control their outlying territories. A girl, Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi) has been trained since the age of 10 by a nun named Jiaxin to be a deadly assassin, killing off corrupt government officials. When Yinniang hesitates to kill one such government official because his son is with him, Jiaxin rebukes her and assigns Yinniang a mission to rid herself of human compassion. She is sent back to her home province of Weibo to kill her cousin, Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen), to whom she was formerly betrothed.

If you are a person who has a difficult time keeping track of characters in period pieces because of their elaborate costumes and makeup, this movie will be incredibly hard for you to follow. I watched this movie with several Chinese Dickinsonians and even they also were confused as to who certain characters were and what role they played in the story.

In general, Hsiao-Hsien enjoys showing the audience certain scenes, but not instructing them on exactly what has happened. It’s refreshing to see this in a time when most movies have a minor character whose sole position is devoted to exposition, but for Americans who do not understand the complexity of Tang Dynasty-period China, keeping up with the plot can be a herculean task. I imagine it is just like if a Chinese person were to watch a Terrence Malick film.

There is a lot of implicit, culture-specific meaning; foreign audiences can easily get lost. Luckily, even if you are struggling to keep up with the plot the movie has beautiful cinematography to keep you entertained. Hsiao-Hsien starts the movie off in black and white, eventually transitioning to color. He loves long static shots of nature, where the characters in the movie move in and out of what the audience can see.

An interesting note is that Hsiao-Hsien managed to avoid sexualizing Shu Qi’s character as a female assassin (and Shu Qi has certainly starred in some sexually-charged roles), a common movie trope. He instead portrays her as a silent and sometimes emotional killer.

If you love beautiful shots of rural China and are a cinematography aficionado, then this movie is a visual feast for just that person. If you feel the need to understand the movie on a plot-level basis (the average movie-goer), then maybe you should give this movie a pass.