Film review – 刺客聶隱娘 / The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2016)

Set in 8th century China during the Tang Dynasty, the film revolves around assassin Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi) who has been ordered to murder a variety of government officials by her master Jiaxin (Fang-Yi Sheu). After taking mercy on those she has been ordered to kill, she is given a much greater task to take down Ti’an Jian (Chang Chen), her cousin to whom she was once betrothed and now a military governor in the Weibo district.

The story is, apparently, an essential tale in wuxia folklore, unique in that it featured a female heroine. It is clear why this is such an enduring tale in Chinese history, especially given its importance as an early example of women’s literature. In this sense it is perfect for a motion picture adaptation.

 

It would be a great success but for the director losing touch with the flow of the movie. In a recent Variety interview, director Hou Hsiao-hsien said “It’s not easy for people to grasp the film fully the first time around, but you can’t wait for the audience. I can’t help but make films the way I do.” I can’t subscribe to this kind of thinking. In my opinion, it is not outside a director’s job to challenge his or her audience, but this shouldn’t be at the deliberate expense of telling a succinct story.

At times, the film feels like an extended advertisement for the tourist board of the Hubei Province in which it was filmed. There are some truly beautiful shots in there that instantly transported me to thoughts of traditional Chinese paintings. It is a triumph of cinematography at its absolute best, courtesy of Mark Lee Ping Bin.

The way the camera lingers on some of the actors and actresses long after they’ve finished what they are saying is also striking and feels deliberately daring. For this reason it should be seen as a success, at least in terms of artistic beauty. 

However, the overarching feeling that the film itself didn’t really have much substance can’t be excused. It’s tricky. The source material is well-loved and recognisable and could hardly have been altered drastically, but it really needed it to achieve greatness. Most notably, the lead character Nie Yinniang, the eponymous assassin, doesn’t actually kill anyone. True, this is the whole point of the film and is central to the plot, but there’s something wholly unsatisfying about having a continuous string of disappointing battles where people get their clothes sliced a little or a couple of hairs trimmed, especially when each shot looks so stunning.

It’s almost a wonderful experience, but falls just short.

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