Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi) is abducted at the age of ten and trained to be an assassin that kills corrupt government officials as ordered by her master Jiaxin (Sheu Fang-yi). On one of her assignments, Yinniang spares the life of her target after seeing him with his son, showing mercy. Jiaxin decides to punish Yinniang by sending her back to where she was born on another mission, to kill the man she was intended to marry, governor Lord Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen).
While many have stated director Hou Hsiao-Hsien is not very concerned with focusing on plot in The Assassin he still finds an effective way to the tell story which can be very confusing at times but always gripping. The Assassin is not simply made up of traditional set-pieces. Instead the film prides itself on living in the moment, letting the viewer sit back and take in everything like a painting, gather their thoughts in order to then prepare themselves to move on to the next feeling.
Some moments might be too visually driven for viewers but they never feel unnecessary or forced, The Assassin has a natural beauty which is obviously carefully constructed yet remains to have an underlying air of being driven by emotions. The human element thankfully is put at the forefront of the film along with the rich visuals, characters speak to one another as if their lives depend on it and every word counts. With extensive shots of beautiful scenery and scrumptious settings, comparisons to the work of Terrence Malick are inevitable yet some might be reminded of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time in the West. In John Fawell’s book about the Leone’s masterpiece, he discusses the slowness and rhythm of the film where time almost seems to slow down indicating that the characters sense their fateful end. The Assassin seems to fully embrace this notion, but where Leone had his actors faces cover the screen just before their dying moments director Hou tends to be less intrusive and focuses on the moments after the fatal events have taken place.
The cast do an incredible job of reflecting the spooky atmosphere, in particular Shu Qi as Yinniang who most seem to be using as an emotional tug of war. The moody stillness makes the viewer intensely aware of the characters surroundings, so by the time the fight scenes occur we are even more engrossed by the graceful wire-work and ravishing choreography. The sudden movement and change of pace makes one have to adapt swiftly to the action, although this is not a conventional action film. The music is limited to a slow drum beat, the movement of the actors are precise and calculated and there is no sight of blood to be found. Hou has created an intriguing, ambigious and stunning work with The Assassin, something your mind and eyes will never forget.