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First Cannes Reviews: Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s “The Assassin”

First Cannes Reviews: Hou Hsiao-Hsien's "The Assassin"

Legendary Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s “The Assassin” premiered at Cannes yesterday to positive reviews. Based on the tale of Nie Yinniang from the Tang dynasty, the film follows a young girl who’s kidnapped and trained to be an assassin, but after over a decade, she’s told to return to her hometown to kill her cousin and first love. Critics adore Hsian-Hsien’s intricate mise-en-scene, the film’s precise compositions, and its meditative pace. Most of all, they’re celebrating his return to cinema after such a long absence from his unique vision. 

Reviews of “The Assassin”

Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian

For its sheer beauty, its mesmeric compositional sense and pure balletic poise, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s distinctive and slow-moving wuxia tale “The Assassin” demands attention. Although at the risk of philistinism, I now confess that for me its sometimes opaque and difficult plot means that my engagement with it can never be as absolute as it’s been for others here at Cannes, who have not hesitated to acclaim “The Assassin” as a masterpiece and a Palme contender. I’m not sure that I can go that far. The final spark of passion I was looking for was more a delicate firefly which floated entrancingly but elusively ahead. But there is no doubt that “The Assassin” – Hou’s first feature for eight years – is a movie of great intelligence and aesthetic refinement; there is majesty and mystery in this film, particularly in the visually remarkable final minutes, when its enigmatic power begins a kind of final ascent. Hou is concerned to do something new with the wuxia genre, to take it to the next level in his own language, and I think he is more successful here than Wong Kar-Wai was with his “The Grandmaster.” He has brought to the wuxia material his own uncompromising seriousness, and welded this seriousness to the form’s mythic resonance.

Justin Chang, Variety

Freely re-imagined from a story written by the Tang Dynasty scribe Pei Xing, titled “Nie Yinniang” after its formidable female protagonist, “The Assassin” employs the sort of rigorously off-center storytelling devices that will prove immediately recognizable to Hou’s worldwide fanbase: a dense historical narrative laid out with unobtrusive intricacy, a masterfully distanced sense of camera placement, and an attentiveness to mise-en-scene that is almost Kubrickian in its perfectionism, as if a single absent detail or period inaccuracy would cause the whole thing to collapse. At the same time, the director and his D.P., Mark Lee Ping Bing, have delivered a picture that looks markedly different not only from any of its myriad genre forebears, but also from any of their nine previous collaborations.

Deborah Young, The Hollywood Reporter

The story opens in 9th century China where the Imperial Court and the powerful Weibo military province co-exist in an uneasy truce. The opening sequence introduces self-possessed protag Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi) and the “princess-nun” Jiaxin (Sheu Fang-yi) to whom she has been entrusted for her education. Though her parents back at the Weibo court may not know it, this consists in turning her into a killing machine of matchless skill, which she demonstrates in the pre-credit sequence. Striking with the speed of a cobra, she probably takes less than three seconds of screen time to slit the throat of a man on horseback. This is the first indication that Hou is deliberately out of the race to create longer, ever-more-astonishing and exciting aerial battles on wires; instead the film follows a formal logic of its own, where fight scenes are brief and to-the-point.

Jessica Kiang, The Playlist

It seems extravagant – until you see it, at which point you start to wonder how he possibly can have dashed off something of such extraordinary beauty and observation so quickly. The pacing is geologically slow (as though every minute of those 25 years is distilled into every shot) and the story is a game of join the dots in which the dots are spaced so far apart it’s hard to connect them into a bigger picture. But what bigger picture can there be than almost any one of these individually colossal frames (not literally, Hou shoots in Academy ratio), so packed with layers of painterly detail that foreground-middleground-background hardly covers it (Hou and DP Mark Lee Ping Bang adhere to the Christopher Doyle school of shooting from behind billowing curtains sometimes, I must say, nearly to the point of distraction)? The story becomes a moment-to-moment thing, an epic visual poem concerned with the putting on of an earring or the setting of a bath or the gradual obscuring of a cliffside by a cloud that roils up from far below while a woman in white is approached by a woman in black on a green mountain. There are miracles in these shots, things that looks like the most serendipitous happenstance, but even over the course of five years of on-and-off shooting, no one gets that lucky that often.

Donald Clarke, Irish Times

Such is the rigorous purity of Hou’s film that we never for a moment suspect that computers have been involved. Years in the making, this is the work of an obsessive tinkerer driven by aesthetic purity. That is both the film’s strength and its occasional weakness. The technique on display here is dazzling. Conversations are glimpsed through a virtual gauze that drifts elegantly back and forth across the screen. The shots may be long, but the editing is still striking in its juxtapositions. The balance of colors in each frame is breathtaking.

Allan Hunter, Screen Daily

Hou Hsiao-Hsien proudly made the epic “Flowers Of Shanghai” (1998) with just 31 cuts. He has clearly moderated his minimalist approach for “The Assassin” which mixes shots of measured, distanced observation with some elegantly choreographed and edited bursts of wuxia action. It isn’t always easy to follow the politics of “The Assassin” but it does look an absolute treat. The film revels in the daily details of long ago lives and the fabulous costumes from Hwarng Wern-Ying assault the sense with their deep crimsons, lush greens and rich gold brocades.

John Bleasdale, CineVue

Violence is not a gratuitous spectacle but presented the way Yinniang herself uses it: without a wasted movement, or breath: in the straightest possible line. So efficient is her combat, she fights mainly with a short dagger, that she doesn’t even necessarily need to defeat her opponents in order to defeat her opponents. In several fights the besting of the adversary happens well in advance of the defeat – like chess grandmasters who know they’ve won six moves in and don’t need to carry it through to check mate. It’s this firm non-showy mastery that Hou shares with his protagonist. The deliberate framing of the shots offers composition after composition to linger over and enjoy: a waterfall crashes through a green forest, a meeting on the precipitous clifftops is obscured by mist as if on cue, a song is sung in a garden, a small bowl of grapes like a detail from a Flemish still life to the side.

Alex Leadbeater, WhatCulture

Oh, it looks incredible. The landscape shots are vast, with the foreground and background contrasting in frames that could be hung in a gallery, while interiors boast a flawless set design; for those in tune with the intricacies of Chinese history it’ll be a treat. And then there’s the action – infrequent as they may be, the fight sequences are fluid and clearly composed. The film could just about hold your attention on the visuals alone, with every fifteen minutes or so offering a new location to fawn over. But all that hard work is for nothing; the film’s plot is borderline incomprehensible and any point to whole thing scattered at best. An opening text card fills you in on the political structure of the Tang Dynasty, but if you want any more story or character you’ll be left wanting; Yinniang is coming back to her past life, but any confrontation is bland, any memories unreferenced and any feelings kept unmentioned until a last minute scene where she explicitly states motivations for one singular element. It’s so hazy only those who’d geeked out over the costume accuracy would actually freely admit they followed the whole thing.

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