By Adam Ray Palmer
Today’s review is for a film that’s released on DVD next week. StudioCanal sent me an early copy of The Assassin for a second viewing on blu-ray after catching it at last year’s London Film Festival.
Directed by Hsiao-Hsien Hou and starring the Asian sensation Qi Shu, The Assassin is a Taiwanese movie that lit up Cannes in 2015 and featured at LFF59.
With the DVD being released on the 23rd May, I had to revisit the film to see if my first impressions were correct…
Taking place in the 7th century, The Assassin is about Nie Yinnang (Shu Qi), an efficient and deadly killer trained by a white-haired nun (Fang-Yi Shue). Yinnang accepts a dangerous mission to kill a political leader in China. The nun then dispatches Nie to the province of Weibo where she is ordered to kill another governor - this one her own cousin, and a man she was once supposed to marry.
To be fair, it is a little confusing I know – you’re not the only one thinking it. The Assassin is so frustrating. The film has everything going for it but there is one component that lets it down, but we will get to that. Last year at the 68th Cannes Film Festival, The Assassin was met with mesmerising silence during the film and then ended with rapturous applause. Similarly, that reaction occurred at the London festival, critics were transfixed into watching every pixel of the screen, but no applause that time around.
There is a certain beauty to this film for sure; the cinematography by Mark Lee Ping Bin is literally stunning. The sweeping establishing shots of picturesque landscapes are breath-taking. The costumes and production design are second to none, but those features are not enough to make The Assassin a five-star film.
The film is severely let down by the narrative. As the story is told through these beautiful images, you feel like the writers are fobbing you off because of the meek plot. The premise is intriguing but what actually unravels is quite disappointing. The movie is disjointed, you lose track of what is going on and especially in the early stages – you don’t know who is who. Even the occasional fight scenes are dissatisfying and don’t leave enough of a mark on the film, especially since it’s called ‘The Assassin’.
In fairness though, the climax does deliver a decent conclusion. It’s just the pivotal middle act where it loses its way at times. My blu-ray version of the film is certainly a delight though. The crisp imagery is sensational and you get sucked in to this mystical drama. There are moments of visual ecstasy in The Assassin to make anyone wide-eyed.
The martial arts genre is normally frantic with incredible stunts and dance-like routines. The films are usually very busy and contain difficult choreography. The Assassin though offers an alternative to the genre and that can be admired. This film is all about the beauty and it plays out like it was made with love by the director. As a parting note, it wouldn’t have been voted the number one film of the year in the annual Sight & Sound poll if it didn’t have something special about it – I at least acknowledge its originality.
Cineroom Rating: 3 Stars
The Assassin is released on DVD and blu-ray next week (23rd May 2016) – certificate 12A
From Adam Ray Palmer, the Editor-in-Chief.
When you have spare cash for a cinema visit, we like to think our reviews make the decision of which film to see a little easier for you.