Cìkè Niè Yǐnniáng, The assassin for the international market, is a 2015 film directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien. I saw it in Mandarin and I used the subtitles to understand something, but I think that I failed. However, I didn’t fail because of my zero knowledge of Mandarin… Long story short, I liked the movie. Let me explain.
In my opinion the director made a movie in which the plot is not important at all. I’ll summarize what I understood of it. An assassin for hire, Yianniang, is sent to kill the governor of the province of Weibo. She fails to do so, even though she manages to confront him at least a couple of times. In a subplot, the jealous wife of the governor tries (with dark magic) to interrupt the pregnancy of a concubine of her husband, but fails. That’s all, I think. Does the film take an hour and forty minutes to tell us this story? Well… yes, it does. But it does so because there are other characters whose role I honestly didn’t understand, and, more importantly, it takes one hour and forty minutes because the director decided to show us a myriad of spectacular images, giving the movie an almost documentary-style.
We see beautiful misty hills, mountains coming out from seas of clouds, forests swept by the wind, people on horseback with wonderful silk dresses moving in the breeze, interiors lit by candles with marked shadows, luxurious wooden houses with splendid colors… and I think that more or less the point of the film is to show us 9th century China rather than telling an actual story.
And even if the trailer (which I obviously saw only AFTER having watched the movie) tries to market The assassin as a martial arts film, it is not. The action scenes are few and far between, and there is no emphasis on the fights. Instead, the director spends several minutes showing us the incredible Chinese nature and the extremely evocative interiors. Even the actors almost don’t matter in this film, and I challenge anyone to feel something about all these characters which are practically no more than sketches. And in no way am I criticizing the movie for this! The characters are like splashes of color on a minimalist painting, only there to enrich the depiction of life in ancient China. Maybe I’m completely wrong, but I think that the director wanted to show us this, rather than telling a compelling story.
And to think that Ah-ga-ssi (The handmaiden, the 2016 Park Chan-wook movie) seemed to me like a slow exercise in style! Compared to The Assassin, it’s like James Cameron’s Aliens! To conclude… if there was a message, I didn’t get it. If there was a plot, it can be summarized in two sentences. But the images… so beautiful! Visually, The assassin is stunning. The cinematography is exceptional. Watch it in Blu-ray, if you can! It seems to me that it was not shot in digital, but I haven’t done any research on this so I may be wrong. And if the story does not capture you, take it as a documentary. Actually, I think that it could work perfectly as a silent film!