The Taiwanese film The Assassin comes with a heavy mantle of expectation.
It’s from acclaimed art house director Hou Hsiano-hsien (who won this year’s Best Director honors at Cannes) and has been named both “the best film of the year” by the British Film Institute , declared “a martial-arts masterpiece” by the Daily Beast and won five awards at Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards (including Best Picture), one of the highest honors for Chinese-language cinema.
Yet the slow, contemplative Assassin is for those who prefer more “arts” than “martial” in their martial arts movies. While beautiful and exquisitely shot — each scene is like a painting come to life — it lacks the visceral narrative to make it more than just an intriguing cinematic experiment for a director who doesn’t usually make this type of film.
The Assassin is the latest example of wuxia, tales of heroism and swordplay in ancient China. In America, the most popular such film remains Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
In The Assassin, Nie Yinniang (Qi Shu, The Transporter) is a 9th century assassin out to kill the local governor, Lord Tian (Chang Chen, Crouching Tiger). Along the way, there are all sorts of family and court intrigues that come to light.
All of this makes The Assassin seem much more propulsive than it is. There’s not much action and what exists is brief and not particularly impressive for anyone who goes to a martial-arts movie expecting to be wowed by the fight choreography.
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(out of five)
Director: Hsiao-Hsien Hou
Cast: Qi Shu, Chen Chang, Satoshi Tsumabuki
Running time: 105 min.