Saturday, April 22, 2023

The Assassin (2015) Old School Kung Fu Fest 2023

This is my 2015 NYFF review.

Coming out of Cannes with great fanfare not to mention a boatload of awards Hou Hsiao-hsien’s THE ASSASSIN was one of few films that you could find on pretty much every film writers must see list. The press screening I attended was packed to the rafters. With people wanting to see the film before everyone else in New York.

The film is the story of a young woman,Nie Yinniang, given over to a “nun” for training as an assassin who is sent back to her family with orders to kill her one time betrothed. There is more to it than that but the film is so obtuse in its plotting I never quite worked out more than that.

Intellectually I admire the film a great deal. I could wax poetic about the use of differing color palates, black and white, the changing frame size and the sparse use of music. I admire that the film requires that the audience to work with it to figure things out. As film of the head its extremely good.

On the other hand the film has no really heart. I never connected. Worse it’s need to be a puzzle for the head makes for some odd choices.

The biggest problem with the film is it falls into the chasm where it doesn’t explain enough. I’m all for a film not explaining things and I’m against a film explaining too much but this film leaves chasms where we don’t have details enough to explain where things stand. Late in the game our heroine returns a horse to some people and I was left scratching my head as to why this was such a big deal. Who are these people? And even after we are clued in to who they are- why are we seeing it? There are numerous characters whose role in the events elude me. There are plot threads that come and go.

The film is also a film of silences and monologues. People don’t so much talk to each other but talk at each other. There are long silences where nothing happens. Unless you are a fan of words unspoken this film is going to bore you.

When the ASSASSIN was announced as being a martial arts or period film from Hou a good many people I know were excited. Would the film reinvent the form, or if not so much reinvent the form would it reinvigorate the film as Wong Kar Wai’s return to the genre had done, or even Ang Lee’s?

While the film has several action set pieces, its not until the latter half that they become anything more than fleeting. The bits in the second half- in particular the battle in the jungle- are quite good but there is not enough here that is going to make this a must see for wu xia fans. I feel sorry for anyone seeing this film expecting anything approaching an action epic because this film is going to confuse them to no end. (The film is being released in the US by Wellgo who normally handle action films from Asia. Anyone picking up this film expecting their usual fare are going to be very upset)

I have a few other reservations about the film -particularly why Hou shot several sequences so they are obscured by hanging cloths when there is no reason for it – but it’s not worth beating a wounded horse(and don’t tell me the it’s because Nie is watching because she is not around for some scenes and in different places for others)

As I said intellectually I know why things were being done, but emotionally the film made no sense to me.

Personally I’d rather have a film resonate emotionally then being of interest intellectually. If a film is emotional I’ll want to see it again because I’ll want to feel again. An intellectual film I never need see again because its all in the head.

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