Directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien and Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Starring Shu Qi, Chang Chen, Satoshi Tsumabuki, Ethan Juan and Xiaoqing Zuo
A female assassin during the Tang Dynasty who begins to question her loyalties when she falls in love with one of her targets.
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★★★★ review by I.V. on Letterboxd
Simply gorgeous. Takes wuxia, the most over-played genre in Chinese film, and makes it seem completely alien without subverting any of its gestures or values.
★★★★★ review by Sean Gilman on Letterboxd
I'm trying to be a bit more stingy with my stars, especially for movies I've just seen for the first time. But I simply can't think of a single thing I didn't like about this movie.
If you wanted to design to film perfectly and specifically for me, it would probably be something like The Assassin. A film by my favorite contemporary filmmaker, one from whom I spent months earlier this year studying and writing about in detail for a theatrical retrospective, working in one of my favorite film genres, the one I’ve spent the better part of the last three years exploring. There was simply no way this wasn’t going to be a movie I liked. But since whether a critic likes a film or not is easily the least interesting aspect of any decent review, thankfully that task is quickly disposed with and we can proceed to more interesting concerns, the what and why of the film. Hou Hsiao-hsien’s latest, his first film since 2007’s Flight of the Red Balloon, is set in the late Tang Dynasty period, starring Shu Qi as a young woman who returns home after ten years as a killer-in-training to wreak vengeance on the local ruler. The film follows a typical wuxia plot structure, with motivations gradually revealed and complicated, schemes exposed, punctuated by regularly occurring fight sequence set-pieces. But Hou has adapted that structure to his own unique rhythm, presenting a languid, patient narrative of long takes exploring lush sets and landscapes. It’s the stillest action movie there’s ever been.
★★★★ review by matt lynch on Letterboxd
Very much a Hou film, social controls and political troubles disrupt relationships and estrange people from their homes and pasts. The fights are sudden and brief but simultaneously graceful and full of physicality and weight, King Hu's verdant bamboo forest now an autumnal wood. You'll have to excuse me but wuxia taking a hard-art turn is probably the best thing for the genre right now.
★★★★½ review by Eli Hayes on Letterboxd
A level of cinematographic skill that hasn't been on display since the likes of Sven Nykvist.
★★★★★ review by Sean Gilman on Letterboxd
Rewatch confirms that what i thought was the plot the first time around actually is the plot. Only thing that isn't more or less explicitly stated is the identity of the masked woman. Hou explains in this interview in Film Comment:
"The character’s name is Jing Jing’er. She and Kong Kong’er, the wizard with the white beard, were kung fu masters in the original story. But Jing and the wife were two different characters in the story. In the film, I wanted to show the fact that the Yuan family married their daughter to the Tian family in order to seize power in Weibo, so the wife was actually a matchless assassin too. Only when something happened, when she felt any threat, she would put on her mask and become an assassin. So in the film, the wife is the lady assassin. Actually, Tian knew about this, too—just nobody talked about it."
He also says this in response to the suggestion that audiences don't quite get the story:
"That’s normal, and it can’t be helped. Hollywood-style films are popular all around the world nowadays, and they need a strict story structure. If the story is not told that way, not continuous enough, the audience will have difficulty following along. But that’s only one of the many ways of telling a story: there are hugely different ways of filmmaking in world cinema. Only because of the huge impact of Hollywood, young people want to imitate that style. Actually, almost all filmmakers want to imitate the style of Hollywood. But I don’t see it that way. A good film is when you continue your imagination [of it] after seeing it."
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