HTS Moderator , Reviewer
Title: The Assassin
HTS Overall Score:82
[img]http://www.hometheatershack.com/gallery/file.php?n=63577[/img]SummaryArthouse, Shakespeare and Wu Xia. That’s not exactly a combination that comes around every summer during the blockbuster season. Rare as that may be, “The Assassin” manages to incorporate all three genre bases into one film that is strangely hypnotic as well as ever so slightly confusing with the incredible amounts of complexity thrown into the hour and forty five minute movie. I had heard about “The Assassin” when the Cannes Film Festival screenings started flowing in, and the positive buzz around the film was ecstatic. I’m always hesitant to jump 100% on board with the positive reviews when coming from a film festival such as Cannes, as many bizarre art house films tend to be given high marks and I end up really not jiving with the esoteric nature of those arthouse critics. However, given the director, I was more than willing to give the film a try as “Flowers of Shanghai” is one of my favorite films of his. “The Assassin” is much more artistic and visual in its storytelling than one would expect, but I was thoroughly entertained and enthralled from beginning to end.
Starting off as a semi traditional Wu Xia film, “The Assassin” introduces us to Yinniang (Qi Shu), a deadly assassin who has been raised by a nun with the expert martial arts skills of a trained master. This conniving nun has turned the young girl into a deadly assassin with skills that are unparalleled by anyone. Evidenced by the flawless hit she undertakes in the first 10 minutes of the film opening. A second hit doesn’t go as planned, mostly due to the fact that Yinniang grants mercy to the indented victim after seeing that his extremely young child is present. Seeing the weakness in her pupil, the nun sends Yinniang on a terrible and seemingly impossible mission. Go back to Weibo, the placer of her birth, and kill the ruler of the little county for her. The twist comes into the picture in the form of this ruler being Yinniang’s own cousin and former romantic liasian, Tian Ji’an (Che Chang).
What seems like an easy hit for the girl ends up being a lot more complicated than she anticipated. Tian Ji’an’s wife is pregnant and once again the deadly assassin is confronted with her own humanity and mercy stays her hand. This snowballs a whole chain of events that will cause Yinniang’s moral compass to start flapping wildly in the wind as she is forced to reconcile the humanity within herself conflicting with the teachings of her master.
[img]http://www.hometheatershack.com/gallery/file.php?n=63585[/img]There’s several side plots that happen as well as Yinniang’s assassination attempt. We have a sneaky and self-serving aid that is banished and soon causes yet another moral dilemma for Yinniang, as well as a dip into the supernatural with an old monk and some mysticism (which is actually pretty standard for your average Wu Xia film). There’s actually a LOT going on under the surface. So much so that I actually had to see the film a grand total of 3 times before I started putting some of the pieces together. On first viewing it can be a bit dense and confusing, with certain sections of the movie seemingly incomprehensible at first viewing. Second viewing I started realizing where the puzzle pieces fit and by the third viewing I was getting a really solid picture of the political and machinations and social interactions that make up a bulk of the movie.
I am hard pressed to say that this is a typical Wu Xia film, even there the movie is steeped in period drama and the typical costumes that fit the time period. However, I DID say there were elements of Arthouse and Shakespeare incorporated and this is what makes “The Assassin” unique. The movie unfolds much like a heavily layered Shakespeare film, complete with symbolism and overly drawn out scenes of bland exposition. That alone is enough to keep most people confused, as Chinese history is not as prevalent in our American culture as overseas, but the inclusion of the Arthouse aspects helped ground the movie a bit for the average movie goer. The film is less spoken as it is experienced. The dialog is important in that it sets up many scenes, but watching the actions of the viewers and the incorporation of silence and visual beauty acts as the movies second narrator. Whole portions of the movie go by where the dialog and subtitles really aren’t needed, as you can tell exactly what is going on just by watching the screen and the scenarios that play out.
Not Rated by the MPAA
[img]http://www.hometheatershack.com/gallery/file.php?n=63593[/img]Not only visually directed, the movie’s aspect ratios and filming style play into the narration of the film as well. “The Assassin” comes in two really distinct aspect ratios, staying in 1.41:1 for a majority of the film, but then switching to a 1.85:1 aspect ratio for a pair of scenes and then back again to the 1.41:1. Even though I say it’s 1.41:1, I would actually venture to guess that the aspect ratios shifted a bit more than that really, going down to 1.38:1 and back again during different acts of the movie. These shifts are very slight (nowhere as drastic as the jump to 1.85:1 and back again) but they are still noticeable if you look closely enough. The film opens up with a monochromatic black and white showing of Yinniang and her very specially honed skills. After her first hit goes as planned the film goes to a full color presentation that looks magnificent. Richly saturated colors adorn the screen, from the luscious greens of the Chinese forest, to the pinks and reds and blues of the silken garments. Or the deep blacks of Yinniang’s assassins gear. Shot on 35 mm film, the movie is wonderfully textured, with a goodly layer of grain that looks completely natural. The shots show a blending of old fashioned “Shaw Brothers” filmography, mixed with a more modern style of movement and grace that seems both oddly old and new at the same time. Blacks are deep and inky, but sometimes look a bit washed out and grey at times. Also I noticed a little bit of crush in the darker scenes combined with the greying effect. The film is razor sharp as a good 35 mm film can be, but Hsiao frames his films sometimes with a gauze effect as Yinniang peers through hazy curtains and that softens the image just a bit. “The Assassin” is just as unique in it’s filming as it is the storytelling, most likely due to the fact that the director uses the strange and esoteric filming techniques as part of the narration itself, creating a wonderfully multi textured film that is awe inspiring.
[img]http://www.hometheatershack.com/gallery/file.php?n=63601[/img]“The Assassin” comes to Blu-ray with a fantastic sounding, and strangely unique sounding 5.1 DTS-HD MA track in Mandarin. Much like the video, the audio is a bit different than one would expect for your average film. While most films tend to focus on the dialog and the effects in the mains, “The Assassin” flips that around and really focuses on the ambient noises and subtle effects throughout all the channels and leaves the dialog as secondary (not to say that the dialog suffers at all). Exaggeration of the surround channels and ambient noises is the norm for this film, as rustling leaves, chirping birds and creaking doors all play front and center in the audio mix. Dialog is scrips and clear, but seems to be at a slightly lower volume than those wildly exaggerated sounds of nature. Directionality is superb as you can hear drum beats and shifts in the music from different corners of the room, and the shifting sounds of the leaves and birds is easily placeable in the sound stage. A creaking door from the left rear of the room SOUNDS exactly where it’s supposed to be, and the shuffling of silken covered feet along hardwood floor whispers gently in the back end of the speakers. Sometimes I felt like the voices were given a harshness in the treble range, but it seems to be have been intentional as all of the voices carry that tone to them. LFE is tight and clean, adding some punch to the action scenes, as well as accompanying drum beats and other naturally weighty sounds.
• Behind the Scenes
I really REALLY wanted to label the film as a 100% flawless masterpiece, but I just can’t do so. I don’t mean to say that “The Assassin” is a disappointment, but rather that sometimes the Arthouse style of filming doesn’t always mesh with the Chinese cultural intricacies to the point where it honestly does take 2 or 3 viewings to really comprehend. I honestly understand what the director was going for, as he plays the film like a Chinese version of Shakespeare, hoping for a more esoteric translation of the usual Asian tragedy. I really enjoyed what I saw, but still have to take into the account the flaws that I noticed as well. Those of you who go in under the assumption that “The Assassin” is a regular Chinese action movie will be heavily disappointed. Even though there are several magnificent action set pieces, they are not a significant portion of the film, neither are they as important as one would guess. However, those who go into the film realizing that this is a very patiently scripted arthouse film based in the Wu Xia framework will come out with a much great appreciation for Hsiao-Hsien Hou’s latest passion play.
Starring: Qi Shu, Chen Chang, Satoshio Tsumabuki
Directed by: Hsiao-Hsien Hou
Written by: Cheng Ah, T'ien-Wen Chu
Aspect Ratio: 1.41:1, 1.37:1, 1.85:1 AVC
Audio: Mandarin: DTS-HD MA 5.1, Mandarin DD 2.0
Studio: Well Go USA
Runtime: 105 minutes
Blu-ray Release Date: January 26th 2016
Buy The Assassin On Blu-ray at Amazon
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