I have a soft spot for wuxia, that genre of Chinese literature and films that deals with chivalry and martial arts. I love most of the martial arts movies I've watched and enjoyed the few martial arts novels I've read. So when I heard about The Assassin, the movie immediately got my attention.

The Assassin is directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien, who won Best Director for the film in the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. Shu Qi stars as the eponymous assassin, Nie Yinniang. I'm not familiar with Hou's works so I have no frame of reference. The only other Shu Qi movie I've seen was So Close, which I enjoyed but this movie is very different from the former so there's no comparison.


The Assassin is loosely based on a short story by Pei Xing. You can read the English translation here.

The film follows Nie Yinniang, a young woman who serves as an assassin under orders of her master who is a nun. Her victims are corrupt government officials. However, when Nie Yinniang wavers in her resolve to kill, her master sends her to the military province of Weibo in order to kill her cousin, Lord Tian to whom she was once betrothed.


This a beautiful, mesmerizing film, entrancing in all its quiet glory. It opens with a black and white sequence of a troop of horsemen riding through the woods and Nie Yinniang darting from the shadows to slit the throat of her victim. The sheer suddenness of it, the almost complete absence of sound -- magnificent! I couldn't stop myself from gif-ing the scene.

The story may not be that engaging -- there is very little conversation going on and, hence, we learn almost nothing about the characters, least of all Nie Yinniang. But Shu Qi carries the movie adeptly - this despite the fact that she barely has any lines and very little to do. The result is a very mysterious narrative, peopled by equally mysterious individuals framed against the mystic backdrop of Northeastern China. Visually, it is a gorgeous film.

Given its title, The Assassin is a misleading film. Then again maybe that's the whole point. This is not your usual martial arts movie. If you expect prolonged, intense, action wire-fu sequences here like in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, this is not the movie for you. Actions scenes are few and far between in The Assassin but what little action there is, the film makes up for with its intensity and fleeting, dance-like quality. The action sequences are also shrouded in mystery, which is helped along by the absolute lack of gore or blood. Sometimes you don't get what happened at the end of a fight until the next scene reveals what transpired.

I love the attention to detail. Close-ups of hair trinkets, golden embroidery in silken robes, texture of pottery. There are long sequences of scenes that are inconsequential to the plot -- servants painstakingly preparing a bath, travelers performing a ritual to give them a safe journey. One particular scene stands out of lovers meeting in a room with exquisite embroidered curtains, unknowingly watched by an intruder hidden in the shadows.

The whole film actually has a voyeur-like quality. It feels more like we're just watching what's going on in the lives of strangers instead of being immersed in it. It's almost like dreaming.


Story - 5
Sound - 6
Cinematography - 8
Production Design - 8
Special Effects/Editing - 9
Acting - 6
Overall - 7/10

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