I have wanted to see this film ever since I read a review in Sight & Sound magazine and also because my forays into the Wuxia genre – House OF Flying Daggers, Hidden Dragon Crouching Tiger – left me hugely satisfied.
Last week I directed a Tweet to my nearby independent cinema and Odeon asking why this picture wasn’t being shown at their cinemas local to me in the Fylde Coast area. Odeon replied it is on limited release, something to do with print availability and distribution causing me to travel 50 miles to watch it in a tiny 60 seat cinema in the HomeMcr (Home Manchester) complex.
I confess I had no knowledge of Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien prior to engaging my interest with this film but I read about his incredible attention to historic and material detail, meticulous research as well as his disclosure that in historical terms we have little knowledge about the lives and times of the inhabitants of 10th Century China under the Tang dynasty other than its rich written and artistic culture. Therefore it may be no coincidence that Hou declines to offer little in terms of character backstories but finds sufficient in the beauty of the country, art, furniture and costume to keep us spellbound by his sumptuous and vivid spectacle.
There is a story of a troubled girl, born to a noble family but exiled on grounds of political expediency to be raised by her aunt, a Taoist nun, who trains her in the martial arts to become an efficient and effective killer. What we see about this assassin, similar to Uma Thurman’s Black Mambo in Kill Bill, she has a conscience, which tends to be pricked when children are involved. Her failure to complete 2 of her assignments incurs the wrath of her mentor but in between lies all the political intrigue prevalent in a dying dynastic empire of the characters who’s decisions may determine the future of the dynasty and the lives of the many people we encounter. Farmers, nobles and servants are all stakeholders but you get the impression that life, in all its beauty will go on come what may.
We all like a fight scene and on screen death is entertaining. People die and fight in The Assassin but the combat scenes are fast, short and sporadic. In fact, the violence is incidental to the film with few gravity defying feats of swordplay at all even though there are occasional nods to the parallel Wuxia universe of jianghu where the constraints of earthly physics are relaxed. But don’t worry about that.
What makes this film so spectacular and worth the entrance fee is the spectacle and the soundtrack. There is very little music in the film but instead, vast open vistas of Chinese country are accompanied by the plaintive noises produced by nature. The chirp of unseen insects or the breeze blowing through the grass; chuckling children at family gatherings, watched at a distance amongst lowing cattle. It almost has a soporific drawing the viewer into it’s dreamlike landscape – you could almost be in a dream or a spiritual, unseen watcher of preceding behind gently cascading lace curtains, hidden behind a wooden pillar or amongst nature in a forest, perhaps behind a waterfall.
The gentle pace of this film will draw you into its beauty and wrap around you with the warmth of a duvet. Watch it more than once, it’s intoxicating.