The synopsis reads as follows: “Tang Dynasty China. 10-year-old general’s daughter Nie Yinniang is abducted by a nun who initiates her into the martial arts, transforming her into an exceptional assassin charged with eliminating cruel and corrupt local governors. One day, having failed in her task, she is sent back by her mistress to the land of her birth, with orders to kill the man to whom she was promised – a cousin who now leads the largest military region in North China. After 13 years of exile, the young woman must confront her parents, her memories and her long-repressed feelings. A slave to the orders of her mistress, Nie Yinniang must choose: sacrifice the man she loves or break forever with the sacred way of the righteous assassins.”
OK… Pretty young girl raised to become the deadliest assassin in ancient China… sounds like we’ve got a promising selection for our current theme, but naturally, the only way to know for certain if this one is gonna satisfy your Favorite Catgirl’s thirst for oodles of “Female Empowerment” is to give it a watch, right? So let’s not waste any more time and get right to it then shall we? 😉
This particular one’s been out in HK for a couple months now on DVD, and as much as I wanted to pick it up, there hasn’t been a big enough pile of DVD’s released there to lure me into another overseas internet shopping splurge. Luckily for me, the Region 1 DVD release happened just in time for our festival, so after a quick trip to our local Walmart, a copy is finally in my lil’ paws at last! Yay!
So… firstly I have to say this one definitely wasn’t what I had been expecting. The Trailer, of course, paints this one as a fairly typical wuxia outing… lots of the normal Martial Arts hijinx with the wire work and frantic kung-fu battles on rooftops, in shadowy ghostly forests, and the like. It’s definitely sold that way… but unfortunately, it’s really not that kind of film at all. Nope. It’s an entirely different sort of animal indeed. Instead of focusing on the action elements, “The Assassin” pretty much prefers to dwell primarily on the history, imagery, and charm of the long vanished Tang Dynasty. Taiwanese director Hsiao-hsien Hou certainly is a master of cinematography… I’ll give him that… but somewhere along the way on this one, he seems to have gotten almost too obsessed with getting the imagery right at the expense of the story, and for me, anyways, the story always matters more than making it all look pretty.
So what that means, is that rather than getting a Martial Arts drama, we get in it’s place a mostly tedious plot in which our film’s title heroine, Nie Yinniang (played by Shu Qui) is supposed to have been raised since childhood by a Martial Nun and trained to become an instrument of death to keep the balance between the Imperial Court and frontier provinces that have become overly strong and overly independent constantly seeking to challenge the central authority for supremacy. You’d expect a plot full of melodramatic intrigue and violent death right? OK… sounds like a promising plot possibility… but unfortunately for just about anybody not already well versed in the intricacies of 8th century Chinese history and politics, this one is also pretty much completely incomprehensible. I’ve watched a lot of Chinese film over the years, so I sort of knew some of what was going on, but my poor Carolyn… they pretty must lost her in about the first 20 minutes. 😦
That means our film will have to rely on the action to keep otherwise confused viewers interested, right? Problem is, our director wants to make a Martial Art film that isn’t actually about the fighting at all. He’d rather have our characters emote… or just move around his artfully dressed scenes with silent purpose in the hopes of giving us the cinematic equivalent of gourmet food. Sure… it all looks good, smells wonderful, and is presented with all the style and flair of a master chef, but ultimately when you pop a bite in your mouth at last…. it just plain isn’t very tasty and appetizing. Pretty much, that’s our film here in a nutshell.
Basically our heroine moves through this story like a ghost… brooding a lot, not achieving anything, never explaining anything or even settling the situation. She just sort of exists, with no real foundation for her motivations presented in any way for us to get a grip on her character. She’s supposed to have been betrothed to her intended target, her cousin the military governor Tian Ji’an (played by Chang Chen), but since she was a 10 year old girl when she got stolen away to begin her training, it would seem that there really isn’t any real basis for any emotional attachment between them… and it certainly isn’t played as if they are anything more than total strangers to one another. That’s the biggest problem with this film… all the characters look precisely right… but once they move, they just end up being empty and hollow beyond that pretty surface.
Mostly, I found this one to be a long, drawn out overly long exercise in how not to tell a Martial Art story. I think I’d have preferred about 20 minutes less film than I got. Seriously. One can go on about how pretty and beautifully shot it is till the end of time, but when all is said and done, it’s like a painting…. you take a look, you appreciate the image and you move on. Nobody wants to stare at the same picture for hours….. 😦
Sigh. I wanted to like this one. Really I did. I’ve been waiting for it for nearly half a year to reach DVD, but now that I’ve seen it, I just can’t say I liked it at all. I found it boring, confusing, pretentious, and totally lacking in any real drama or audience appeal. It didn’t engage me… didn’t thrill me… didn’t wow me with it’s impressive beauty after the first 30 minutes or so.
Maybe I’m too lowbrow for this kind of film, but for me it scores only a paltry 2 “Meows” out of 5. Want beautiful cinematography, amazing use of color and contrast, and a good Martial Art story? Watch Jet Li’s “Hero” instead…. now that’s a Martial Arts epic that scores as an artistic achievement in film making as well.
The DVD? Well, the Region 1 DVD by Well-Go is at least an excellent choice if you still find yourself wanting to take a peek at this one, presented both widescreen and in the original Chinese language with the excellent English subtitles you want. All for about 15-20$ US, although I’d suggest a rental first before plunking your cash down for copy of your very own. Trust me… 😉
Our trailer? Well here it goes, much better than the film itself, all English subtitled for your enjoyment. 🙂