Festival Review: The Assassin (2015)

The Assassin

Glacial beauty with flashes of choreography, Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin is a feast for the senses.

Slow East

by Mark Wilshin

The Assassin

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Putting the art into martial art, Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin is a stunningly beautiful, lyrical and elliptical dream. It’s hardly a wuxia in the traditional sense, with naturalistically choreographed and rapidly concluded fight sequences. And for the most part, The Assassin dedicates itself to lavishly recreating the Chinese courts and palaces of the 8th century, taking special care around its spectacles and rituals, as we watch concubines dance or a bath being prepared. Even story comes second place in this kaleidoscope of images, with the tale of white peonies withering outside the city walls coming after an enigmatic sequence of a wavering flower. But winner of Best Director at Cannes, Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin is abrupt, wilfully obscure (with, as expected, only minimal dialogue) and occasionally just a little too pretty – with its billowing silk gauzes and elaborate production design. And with sequences in which even sunsets, clouds and birds seem to bow to Hou’s will, it’s hard to decide whether the hundreds of takes that must have been required are a sign of genius or pathology. A visual journey through the power struggles between the Imperial Court and the outlying garrison at Weibo, it’s a paradigm for the strained relationship between Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Taiwan and its much larger neighbour. But with its extreme slow-motion sequences, elliptical narrative and glacial development, Hou Hsiao-Hsien The Assassin remains hidden beneath an indecipherable codex.

The Assassin is now showing at the London Film Festival

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