Take a Drink: every time your jaw drops at a shot. Actually… please don’t.
Take a Drink: whenever somebody says “Weibo”
Take a Drink: for flashbacks
Do a Shot: for sudden flashes of violence
By: Henry J. Fromage (Two Beers) –
So, You Think You’ve Seen the Best Shot Film of the Year? The Revenant, Sicario, or my fave, Slow West, maybe?
Well, you haven’t. The Assassin is… just goddamn.
It took 12 years, but during the 2015 Cannes film festival acclaimed Taiwanese arthouse director Hou Hsiao-Hsien finally unveiled his wuxia masterpiece.
The plot follows an assassin as she does assassin things, haunted by specters of her past and, after an unexpected act of mercy, tasked with an assignment which will make her confront them- killing a Governor who she once was to marry.
Journalists who visited the set or accompanied Hou’s production crew on location shoots described an almost zen-like experience as they patiently waited for that perfect gleam of light or shade of shadow, for that perfect shot… and wow, did they find it. 105 minutes worth, to be exact. DP Mark Lee Ping-Bing delivers in every possible respect. The glorious color! The impeccable framing! The way even the mist seems to arrive on demand- one stunning long take as that mist overtakes two characters on a mountain cliff will drop your jaw.
Every other element of the production works in service of those visuals, like the delectably sumptuous costuming, tailored to match set & lighting and dazzle the eye, or the lightly wire-assisted action scenes, which strike quickly and violently, but are often shot at a distance and through obstructions, like white birch trees. This produces an effect that feels both more realistic than most wuxia action, yet just as epically awesome.
Finally, while the story isn’t terribly engaging, its strange rhythms are, lulling you into contemplation and, again, appreciation for the gorgeous imagery. The acting, while also in service to this goal, is often very evocative, if largely silent, and full of smaller character moments, like a boy shielding his mother as fear and determination battle for his expression. Hsien is in total control.
The final punctuation on the film is a beautiful piece of music, played on a traditional flute of some sort, almost like bagpipes- the perfect sonic flourish for a soundtrack mostly concerned with the music of cicadas and crickets.
Plot? What plot? Hou’s never been afraid of an opaque plot, and probably doesn’t even own spoons, or ones that can hold little dollops of plot to feed the audience with, but wow, The Assassin is a tough one to follow. As often happens with Asian period pieces, there’s a good chance that political context and literary references from centuries ago is missing from my Western perspective, but even then, I doubt this would qualify as straightforward anywhere.
But who needs to know what’s going on when a movie looks this good?
Judging by the cinematography… and the plot… it takes twelve years to make a movie look this good.