The Assassin Screen 57 articles

The Assassin


The Assassin Poster
  • The Assassin ranks among the most beautiful movies ever made, and will delight any viewer for whom that qualifies as more than enough. If gorgeous still images were my primary interest, however, I’d spend less time in movie theaters and more time in museums, or leafing through photography books. My issue with Hou’s films is that they’re fundamentally pictorial, and that’s not what excites me about cinema.

  • I didn’t relate to it—it never got me into the film. I had this sense that I was seeing some parts of a much bigger thing, and I only got the parts that were the most disconnected. It was impossible for me to get into any kind of narrative, even just the simplest parts—identifying which character is which was a problem.

  • Biggest surprise is how garish the colours are, given all the talk of visual beauty; looking at the almost phosphorescent moss on the trees, or the butter-yellows in the lady's bedchamber, it feels like someone went nuts with the colour-correction. Hou anchors movement (the action of the wuxia) in stillness, just like his heroine who's so adept she performs the martial-arts moves with detachment, almost with indifference.

  • I was disappointed. I did not sense the epic historical tones of a film like City of Sadness. A high standard I know. Yet with The Assassin I felt a strange thinness to the narrative. But maybe the rather inchoate way I’m trying to articulate my response is testament to the film’s uniqueness.

  • I like it a lot—it’s beautiful. I admire all of its formal qualities. I was awake, which helped. But the reason I was able to follow it was because I didn’t go on the first night. I had been warned by a sufficient number of people to be alert... It might have been the best-directed movie of those 19 films. It’s the best-made of all of them. At the same time, I don’t love the movie. I feel no passion for it, really. I have passion for other movies of his.

  • I’ll confess to finding my minute-by-minute reaction often returning to the question “Why?” Not “what is happening?” but why individual aesthetic choices were being made. I’m a big fan of many Hou’s films, but this one left me outside in the cold. A must-see, of course: the film feels carved out of an unwieldy mass of material into a shape whose forbidding contours are an admirable attempt to duck greatest hits self-repetition and find new frontiers. And yet.

  • The director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s historical drama, set in ninth-century China, fuses political struggles and family grudges into images of a sumptuous stillness, which he punctuates with spasms of extravagant martial artistry... Scenes of dialectical strategizing, however, are flattened and thinned out; the conflict, thrust into the foreground, is stripped of its psychology.

  • In its patient long takes, impeccable mise-en-scène and sound design, and focus on history and morality, it looks and feels like a Hou film through and through... For those in tune with Hou’s formalist style and thematic concerns over the span of his long and distinguished career, there is much to contemplate even as one finds oneself gasping in awe at the beauty of his images.

  • The Assassin is diffuse to the point of total incomprehension... Upon closer examination, however, the obtuseness of Hou's film reveals a careful synchronization between the protagonist's emotional state and the clarity of the structure.

  • A staggeringly lovely period film set in ninth-century China... Filled with palace intrigue, expressive silences, flowing curtains, whispering trees and some of the most ravishingly beautiful images to have graced this festival, “The Assassin” held the Wednesday-night audience in rapturous silence until the closing credits, when thunderous applause and booming bravos swept through the auditorium like a wave.

  • A mesmerizing slow burn of a martial-arts movie that boldly merges stasis and kinesis, turns momentum into abstraction, and achieves breathtaking new heights of compositional elegance: Shot for shot, it’s perhaps the most ravishingly beautiful film Hou has ever made, and certainly one of his most deeply transporting.

  • It is a measure of the film’s astonishing formal audacity and breathtaking elegance that we don’t actually feel any need for a clearer narrative. Whether shooting through transparent curtains or mountain mists, or using muted or saturated colours, holding for a long time on a static tableau or delivering a quick montage depicting Yinniang despatching her enemies with deadly ease, Hou constantly makes us feel almost as if we’re watching something we’ve never seen before. And perhaps we are.

  • Every element in the film radiates sentiment, from its shimmering candy-box interiors to the poetic landscapes reminiscent of Jauja's glorious, otherworldly textures of nature—all is charged with feeling, as each gesture, presence and non-presence speak to deeper currents of emotion, and yet all exist in a world that attempts to obtain a distance from such human concerns, whether it is through martial discipline or romance and marriage serving familial and political allegiances and obligations.

  • For the first eight or nine shots of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s anti-wuxia The Assassin, my arms – from fingertip all the way to elbow – began to tingle with nervous excitement... How could the film possibly keep up this high-intensity barrage of what, to get all superficial for a moment, are close to perfect images, sequenced with the kind of attentiveness and industry which make most filmmakers seem blind to the possibilities of what cinema, what choreography, what edits can achieve?

  • In a competition otherwise marked by compromise and caution, Hou Hsiao-hsien's austere, astounding The Assassin feels like it's been beamed in from another era entirely, even as its heavily saturated, aggressively digital images carry an undeniably modern gleam. Formally entrancing, narratively confusing, and frequently sublime, Hou's take on the wuxia martial-arts genre is bracingly singular, a captivating lesson from a true master on all the things that can be controlled within the frame.

  • All it takes to change the temperature of a scene in The Assassin is a softly billowing brocade of silk. The first film in seven years from the Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-Hsien is an immaculate treasure box of light, texture and movement. It is one of the most purely beautiful films I have ever seen... Every scene, every shot, has been composed with total, Kubrickian precision, and calibrated for maximum, breath-quickening impact.

  • A work of pure cinema, every shot in The Assassin is a masterpiece in itself. Hou weaves this rich but subdued story in the most mysterious of ways. Dialogue scenes reveal plenty of details, and yet it is the stares and movements of characters that tells their story.

  • Hou applies his trademark style to this most unlikely genre for him, resulting in a Tang dynasty tale that alternates hallucinatory longueurs with sudden flurries of action, like a trance punctuated by fits of St Vitus Dance. The rich colours could be from another planet; here’s a film that’s a total law unto itself.

  • What’s so special about this oblique take on the historical wu xia epic are the long, quiet sequences between the action, where the ability of trained murderer Nie Yinniyang (Shu Qi) to melt into the shadows creates a delicious dynamic between, on the one hand, our sheer pleasure in the beauty with which Hou’s DP Mark Li films diaphanous curtains, billowing gauzes and waving tree branches, and on the other the anticipation that our gorgeous assassin will appear amongst them and do something.

  • For those who seek the comforts of linear narratives, The Assassin, comprised of images and shots so ravishing, so exquisitely wrought, so overwhelming in their layered details, will smack of empty formalism. But if you’re open to the deftly poetic, or rather to defiant poetic obliqueness, and if you’re willing to follow cinema beyond the confines of narrative, you will encounter a film unlike any others–including other Hou films.

  • As always in Hou, what remains unspoken emerges with a stealthy clarity. Readable as an allegory about present-day China-Taiwan relations, The Assassin is above all pure cinema: a hallucinatory interplay of color, movement, and light and a mesmerizing study of bodies in space.

  • The film is complex and truth be told it requires more than one viewing to truly understand it in detail (impressed cinephiles flocked back to repeat screenings during its Cannes premiere run). As with almost all of Hou’s films, it is finely multilayered, each plot point bringing another story into the picture, while simultaneously mesmerising viewers with its sublime imagery (courtesy of another Hou regular, DP Mark Lee Ping-bin).

  • Reviewers were quick to pin it with the label “beautiful”, which may be somewhat lacking in analytical acuity, and betray an attitude of surrender at The Assassin’s eminent inscrutability, but rarely has a film so defiantly warranted such an appellation. Every image, every on-screen movement, every element within the frame, bellows out the sheer, unadulterated formal beauty of Hou’s film.

  • The cinematography, by Hou’s longtime director of photography Mark Lee Ping Bing, is a triumph, a crystalline and increasingly rare example of 35mm’s inexhaustible potential. Hou and Lee arrange the interior scenes like slow waltzes through rarified spaces.

  • In the eighth day of press screenings at Cannes 2015, a great film appeared. By then, many people, especially those in the industry, had gone home, suspecting that a lackluster selection would only get worse in the final four days. But Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin, crystalline in beauty and oblique in narrative, its titular heroine (Shu Qi) as taut and steely as her sword, reaffirmed one’s belief in movies, much as Hou’s 1998 Flowers of Shanghai had at the end of the last century.

  • Agape… astonishment… awe… when the lights came up after the first press screening of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin, some of us were still sitting there in silence as ushers cleared the room, staring at the screen and wondering: where did that come from?

  • On Day 8 Hou Hsiao-hsien descended from on high to save the day with his long-gestating wuxia period drama The Assassin, which immediately became almost everybody’s favorite Competition film (mine included), even if many professed themselves as much mystified as entranced. A film like this is almost in a league of its own.

  • Hands down the film of the festival proper, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin is a colorful, abstract prism of perspectives that uses the wuxia genre and its standard conventions as a launching pad to discuss the otherworldly powers of emotional surrender.

  • Most wuxia depict combat with balletic grace. The Assassin, though, is about the rejection of violence. Hou never depicts an exquisitely choreographed battle without cutting away mid-gesture, whether to the trauma of a victim, or to an entirely unrelated scene. Countless action and war films have trained us to crave the thrill of violence. Instead, Hou thrills us with its absence.

  • Scenes of breathtaking, expansive, and meditative stillness alternate with swift, cutting sword-fighting action. With his uncanny visual and aural ability to draw the past into the present, Hou instills scenes set in the 9th century with a haunted realism. Whereas the opiate-tinged beauty of The Flowers of Shanghai (98) was tempered by formal strictures, here Hou lets cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin’s indelible long takes linger and steep us in the Imperial grandeur and sublime imagery.

  • There's perhaps no filmmaker I'm happier to be confounded by than Hou Hsiao-hsien, and I suspect many Western viewers will find his ninth-century-set martial-arts drama, The Assassin, based on a short story written by Tang Dynasty author Pei Xing, bewildering on a narrative level even as they marvel at its opulent pictorial qualities. Certainly this is a cinematographic master class.

  • The swift tumult of fabric, the heart-bleeding colours, the luxuriant verdant of the forest -- The Assassin is also a martial arts drama that compels us to rethink the essence of the genre. Historically regarded as a cheap, sweaty form of entertainment, the wuxia film has reached the pinnacle of high-art in this Taiwanese production -- and some audiences will certainly feel baffled, if not exasperated.

  • Hou Hsiao-hsien’s meditative take on the wuxia film, The Assassin, revels in expressive stillness and stunning, strangely poignant battle scenes.

  • Less concerned with eulogizing values than exploring them, the film carves out a rich emotional sphere concomitant to its stunning production design, finding delicate poetry in the dispassionate pursuit of revenge.

  • The eye of the beholder be damned; it's inarguably the most visually sumptuous film of the entire festival.

  • "The Assassin" is like a painting that dances to life. Hou’s images are at once stark and silky, shifting focus and centrality, welcoming intrusions from heavy bodies and weightless natural splendour. Psychologies are slowly revealed, like the complexities of the plot, but both are hardly as important as the way Shu Qi stands, the way she makes a fist, the way her clothing seems to have been tailored to make room for her soul rather than her body.

  • Hou’s latest, The Assassin, his first in the wuxia genre, is perhaps his most senses-heightening work yet, a film of simultaneous action and repose, of specificity and abstraction, giving the viewer just enough information to follow its dense narrative avenues while asking that their eyes take the road less traveled.

  • Hou Hsiao-hsien's The Assassin is the Taiwanese director's first foray into the martial-arts genre. It may also be his most resplendent film yet: Watching it is like floating along on a sumptuous gold-and-lacquer cloud... The Assassin is the slowest martial-arts movie in the East, and that's a wonderful thing.

  • Hou’s elliptical narrative makes The Assassin a film where you’re not so much hanging on the next twist as you are keeping the plot in mind as another line in the harmony, not always in the foreground... Perhaps it’s fair to say that The Assassin does pack a punch (and a slash) after all, as the most beautiful and transcendent film of the year.

  • The Assassin is one of the most flat-out beautiful movies of the last decade, and also one of the most puzzling... Bold takes on popular genres generally set out to de-mystify, but Hou has accomplished the opposite. Washing away centuries of film and fiction, he envisions a tale from the Tang dynasty—about a deadly martial artist who must kill the man to whom she was once betrothed—as a window into the haunted otherworld of the mythic past.

  • You don't need any of this [thematic context] to fall in love and abandon yourself to the movie's exquisite landscapes, at once serene and melodramatic, revel in Hou's stealthy cutaways to quivering blossoms, or listen to the birdsong and the wind ruffling trees that counterpoint the bloodshed. With and without allegory, to watch The Assassin is to be carried along in the river of life, in all its ecstasy and terror.

  • Shot on 35 mm film, The Assassin stunningly captures the visually rich days of the Tang dynasty—from candlelit interiors draped in gauzy fabrics to the lush, sweeping Chinese landscape—and provides an emotionally evocative immersion into the period.

  • Simply put, THE ASSASSIN is unprecedented. Ostensibly a wuxia film, this is worlds apart from anything King Hu might have dreamed up. There exists no film like it, though there are a handful of faint antecedents. Carl Dreyer's DAY OF WRATH, Akira Kurosawa's THRONE OF BLOOD, and Robert Bresson's LANCELOT DU LAC suggest something of the mysticism, the atmosphere of people under the spell of ancient superstition, that Hou casts over this Tang Dynasty legend.

  • The visuals are, quite literally, overwhelming. There were shots that were so beautiful I practically could not take it in, in one glance: it’s like trying to “take in” the Grand Canyon... I had time to settle in, to look up at the misty ranks of mountains in the background, the vast space in the foreground, the line of trees reflected perfectly in the dawn-blue water, the row of fog breaking up a vertical cliff of green trees... This is one of the most beautiful looking films this year, or any year.

  • The elegantly restrained and opaque take on the martial-arts movie unfurls its precise choreography in an aesthetically rigorous world of brilliant green forests and sumptuous interiors.

  • Even by Hou's superlative standards, his latest work is exquisite and thoroughly entrancing, so strange and enigmatic, yet elegant, in its rhythms. It also provides more compelling evidence for why Hou is our greatest narrative filmmaker: that is, specifically, because he manages, at once, to work within the basic, essential constraints of narrative stoytelling and to subtly subvert every pro forma rule of plot and character.

  • What remains indelible are the movie's sensory pleasures: a room filmed through gauzy silk; a low, mesmerizing drumbeat.

  • There’s an old line from D.W. Griffith about how what movies have lost is “the wind in the trees.” Well, look no further than The Assassin, which not only offers its share of swaying foliage, but also connects philosophically to this idea of cinema as exquisite ephemera. Casting his characters in shadows and shooting through thin scrims and brocaded curtains, Hou Hsiao-Hsien keeps his mise-en-scène mysterious, in contrast to the story, which is fairy-tale simple.

  • The quietest, most nonviolent kung-fu movie ever made. Here, the real martial art is the act of looking, with the frame staying still ever so slowly panning across scenes, creating an extraordinary sense of attention to every detail of space and time.

  • What we manage to see in The Assassin is nothing more or less than what we allow ourselves to see in our selves. The Assassin is indeed like a Ming vase, beautiful — and — empty. Those who love this film can see only the vase, and those who dislike this film can see only the emptiness inside it. But without the vase, we cannot manage to see its emptiness, and there is, in fact, no emptiness unless there is a vase that demarcates its boundaries.

  • The camera—often patiently static, sometimes subtly panning—tells the story of political negotiations robed in protocol. It tells of Shu Qi’s title character and the choices she confronts: to engage in or refrain from violence? When she does act, Hou invests her swordplay with just as much visual and moral weight as her placidity.

  • In any other hands, it would seem a perversion: a Chinese wuxia film that features action only sparingly, that lingers on stillness, ogles space, maintains incongruity, and disinvites allegiance, while treating physical contact like a toppled vase—swiftly dropping, bafflingly scattering. But this is a work by Hou Hsiao-hsien, reflective of a sensibility sprung from the inside out, with story, aesthetics, and emotion utterly intertwined.

  • ++

    Sight & Sound: Tony Rayns
    January 04, 2016 | February 2016 Issue (p. 29-32)

    The Assassin may be light on the visceral thrills of action scenes, but it internalises the spirit of wuxia movies to present the ancient past as a world that we can observe but never fully comprehend. Hou starts the film with scenes in monochrome and Academy ratio, as if to suggest that the entire project is a form of cinematic archaeology, and then shifts to colour and widescreen for his dreamlike panorama of an 'alien' world. The result redefines the very notion of speculative fiction.

  • The film is exquisite, a great sheet of jade-coloured water ruffled by the movement of a sword. There’s incredible attention to detail in all the interiors and the landscape shots in remote areas of Hubei and Inner Mongolia. It’s a film that gains greatly from second or third viewings.

  • Structured like a classic wuxia film (with nods to King Hu, among others), The Assassin exalts its genre with its deep inquiry into beauty, morality and humanity. Bursts of swordplay; soul-infused landscapes of unimaginable beauty; the silent depths of philosophical inquiry. This is cinema distilled to its absolute essence, an astonishing capstone to a master filmmaker’s still developing art.

  • There is no risk of overstating the alternating manic and woozy pleasure of The Assassin. Like the lavish textiles that help divide the rooms of its Tang Dynasty courts, Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s wuxia layers texture upon texture, masterfully obscuring detail to create a one of a kind cinematic experience.

  • “The Assassin” is extraordinarily beautiful. The film’s editing and narrative construction are, however, no less remarkable. For all its exquisitely furnished interiors and fantastic landscapes, “The Assassin” is far too eccentric to ever seem picturesque. Nor does it unfold like a typical wuxia. Mayhem is abrupt, brief and fragmentary — predicated on suave jump-cuts and largely devoid of special effects.

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