How are we lucky enough to get Mad Max: Fury Road and The Assassin in the same year? Like Fury Road, Hou Hsiou-hsien’s new arthouse action flick is stunningly cinematic, wholly engrossing and utterly badass. Also like Fury Road, it’s a film with a warrior heroine who will inspire an entire generation of cos-players. Unlike Fury Road, The Assassin’s near-glacial pace seems destined to polarize audiences. It is a distinctly observant, enigmatic martial-arts film where death comes slowly.
All you need to know about the plot of The Assassin is that it’s set in seventh-century China, and follows a mysterious woman assigned to kill a political leader she was once engaged to. Here is a film that’s much more interested in creating mood and tension than in establishing traditional storylines and characters. Colorful but dark, quiet but always menacing, and earnestly sympathetic toward its most violent character, the world of The Assassin is stunning to behold but always feels uneasy. It’s observant style means that almost the entire film exists in long takes and wide shots, with the assassin’s ghostly presence lingering over every scene.
It’s fascinating how few memorable film characters, lately, have been white guys. The Assassin continues the welcomed trend with Yinniang (Qi Shu), its titular sellsword. A truly unique character, flawlessly portrayed by Shu in a close to wordless performance, astounded the adult version of me. The kid version of me is dying to know who would win in a fight between Yinniang and Imperator Furiosa. Too often in films, stakes are lost during action sequences because the protagonist feels invincible. The Assassin is good enough to show how frightening a virtually un-killable fighter would be. Yinniang’s otherworldly invulnerability leaves a chill that resonates over the entire film, which makes the quiet scenes simmer.
The film took something like seven years to produce, and the time was spent well. The meticulous reconstruction of seventh-century China is some of the better production design that I have ever seen. Each scene unfolds so slowly that it’s impossible not to look around and start appreciating the vivid details. The many martial-arts fights are just too cool, yet I never quite saw one completely. Hsiou-hsien isn’t afraid to let his camera sit 50 yards away while Yinniang fights a small army, and it gives the sequences like that a sense of calm that I have never seen in an action film.
The Assassin deserves to be watched, re-watched, discussed at length, argued over, then re-watched again to settle the argument. Again, like Fury Road and a handful of other films released this year, The Assassin is perfect. My favorite review of Fury Road claimed that it felt like a film that would inspire the next generation of filmmakers. I have no doubt that future filmmakers will cite The Assassin as influential. The film is likely to be my second favorite of the year, behind Fury Road, and one of my favorites of the decade. Please go see The Assassin. I need people to geek out over it with.
Grade = A+