MAMI Mumbai Film Festival Review: 'The Assassin' by Aneesh Raikundalia

Director Hou Hsiao Hsien’s latest film; is the Taiwanese Oscar contender 'The Assassin'. A Wuxia film featuring much of the director’s distinct atmospheric style, is a visual treat to behold and a sure shot foreign film contender once the Oscars roll around.

The film follows Nie Yinniang, whom as a ten year old is abducted by a nun in 9th century China. She trains her into the ultimate weapon, so as to eliminate local corrupt governors. Having failed a recent task, she is sent back home with the task to murder the man she was once promised to; A cousin, who now leads the largest military region in North China. After 13 years of exile, she must confront her parents, her memories and her long repressed feelings. A slave to her mistress, she must make a choice; sacrifice the man she loves or break forever with the sacred way of the assassins.

 

Taking on an emotionally stirring conflict, Hsien transforms it into a methodologically paced art piece that reflects on the cultural and political outlook of 9th century China with a mythic dose to it.

The emotional indecision of the protagonist forms the entirety of the films plot, the back and forth can get tiring for the viewer at times but the authenticity grabs you. Much of this story is reflected in the actor’s performances and the cinematic sensibilities of the director.

Sequences well strung together, form a sense of exploration and reacquaintance for Yinniang. She spies in absolute silence as things unfold. The shot taking and lighting strikes here with breathless frames of unimaginable beauty.It helps to compound on the mysticism of the genre along with the minimal dialogue and slowly boiling emotions of the protagonist. Cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin is truly a magician.

The production and costume design is very much eye pleasing to watch and helps build the atmosphere of the era. As is with any Wuxia film, the sound design works on its own terms; small foleys and effects are very distinctively created and are a defining characteristic of the genre.As aforementioned one cannot take away Hsien’s distinctive style and it shows during the masterfully choreographed fight sequences.

The performances as well are highlights especially Shu Qi as the titular character. She presents a well placed coldness and detachment to her emotionally evocative return as she haunts the area. Much of her emotional turmoil is brought out by her physical performance especially during the fight sequences.

'The Assassin' is very much a minimalist take on the genre. It can become overwhelming and laborious to handle, with the story very much playing under the surface but it works because of how stirring this conflict is and how cinematically engaging Hsien makes it.

'The Assassin' is a visual treat for the ages, not worth missing.