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The Assassin (2015)


Nathan Douglas
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Glenn Heath Jr

(A, maybe A+): Hou evokes Jancsó's THE RED AND THE WHITE with this fractured, honorable, striking anti-war film.

 

 

Antonio Maria Abate:

The Assassin: sorry for the others but this enchanting Hou Hsiao-hsien is cinema at its best. Palm d'Or. A challenging one.

 

P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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  • 5 months later...

I wrote this in the A&F Ecumenical Jury thread, but wanted to post it here too:

The Assassin revels in mystery, forcing the viewer to truly think and contemplate what they're seeing on screen. For the viewer, there's a tension between the on-screen visual grace and the work of the audience to understand what is happening before them. The film also directly addresses ethical issues of pacifism and violence, particularly around the main character's vocation and familial ties. And I think it lands strongly on the pacifism side, yet shows that taking this path is not a cop-out or a sign of weakness, but a chosen path requiring immense strength, resilience, and sacrificial action. (I'm a pastor with Anabaptist/peace-making leanings, so a film that wrestles with pacifism like this without becoming a didactic "message film" is so refreshing.) There are also themes of guilt and forgiveness, regret and redemption. The Assassin is also open to spirituality--sure, a decidedly more Eastern version, with some sort of dark magic afoot--and I find a film that openly embraces a worldview containing the spiritual and mystery is decidedly more "Christian" than one which doesn't (e.g. The Martian). Finally, it's one of the most visually beautiful films I've ever seen, without exaggeration. Hou's use of color, the framing, the aspect-ratio, all of it; each frame is so deliberate and precise without ever feeling rigid. A few scenes literally took my breath away, and I uttered a spontaneous "whoa..." at the beauty before me (e.g. the mountain shot with the rising fog). The more I think about it, the higher The Assassin rises in my estimation.

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Well, I didn't follow the plot much at all, and eventually gave up trying. And you know what? I don't care. I was mesmerized. And I look forward to reading all about it and then seeing it again to start making more sense of it. At the movies, plot simplicity is less and less of a primary concern for me, and visual art is more and more of what matters to me. And so it was worth a long trip in torrential rain to a place with very expensive parking. 

P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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  • 3 weeks later...

I watched this a few weeks ago, right before it left theaters. I've just forgotten to write about until now, but I haven't stopped thinking about it.

Anyway, I absolutely loved it. I second everything Joel said. In a nutshell, I would call this the anti-Kill Bill. By which I mean Kill Bill is the story of a lethal, unparalleled female assassin who uses her martial arts training to regain her former life while losing her soul. In contrast, The Assassin has the same type of skilled protagonist who uses those skill sets in her effort to step away from her life of killing and regain her soul.

 

Can I say I found the plot fairly easy to follow without sounding pretentious? She's sent to assassinate her cousin, and the film is about her guilt and conflict over killing a member of her family, what that would do to China, and how best to achieve peace (which is why she supposedly had to kill her cousin and other corrupt rulers in the first place).

 

I will say I didn't entirely understand the shifting aspect ratios on a first viewing, but I'm more excited to rewatch this than anything else that's going to be in top five this year. (Maybe more excited for Love & Mercy, but that's it.)

"Anyway, in general I love tragic artists, especially classical ones."

"Even the forms for expressing truth can be multiform, and this is indeed necessary for the transmission of the Gospel in its timeless meaning."

- Pope Francis, August 2013 interview with Antonio Spadaro

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Evan, I don't think that's pretentious at all. I think that as a whole, the film's plot is fairly simple at its core -- the confusion is Hou's disregard for giving the audience all the details. On my first viewing, I had no idea who the second assassin was, or the sorcerer, and the ellipcital cutting/editing left me confused about the passage of time.But like Jeffrey, I didn't really care. The film's beauty and poignancy entranced me.

Re: aspect ratios. I can only remember the one shift; from its regular 1.33(or is it 1.37?)to 1.85 during the zither scene flashback. Where there any others that I missed?

"What's prayer? It's shooting shafts in the dark." -- Frederick Buechner, Godric

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18 minutes ago, Josh Hamm said:

Re: aspect ratios. I can only remember the one shift; from its regular 1.33(or is it 1.37?)to 1.85 during the zither scene flashback. Where there any others that I missed?

I don't recall any others, but I was keenly aware of this one.

 

2 hours ago, Evan C said:

Anyway, I absolutely loved it. I second everything Joel said. In a nutshell, I would call this the anti-Kill Bill. By which I mean Kill Bill is the story of a lethal, unparalleled female assassin who uses her martial arts training to regain her former life while losing her soul. In contrast, The Assassin has the same type of skilled protagonist who uses those skill sets in her effort to step away from her life of killing and regain her soul.

Oh, I love this. The anti-Kill Bill. Well put.

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Yup. This film is quite a marvel. Just left the theater and I want to go back in for a second screening. Alas, time.

I just went to log this into my diary on Letterboxd and chuckled at the synopsis given on the film's page:

A female assassin during the Tang Dynasty who begins to question her loyalties when she falls in love with one of her targets.

I mean, this one is hard to follow certainly. There's a lot of political detail, similar names and faces (for a backwoods Southerner like myself, especially), and Hou's clearly intent on creating an entrancing, incoherent experience. But really, that last clause: "...begins to question her loyalties when she falls in love with one of her targets." 

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  • 1 month later...
  • 4 months later...

What a gorgeous film.  It’s been years since I’ve seen anything made this cinematically, every-shot-could-be-a-painting, beautiful.  More than once my wife asked me to press the pause button just so that we could study everything on the screen.  The colors, the candles, the veils, the clothing and the lighting are all perfect to the very last tiny detail.

Yinniang is one of the least pretentious and unassuming strong female main characters I’ve ever seen.  Her very presence on the screen is mysterious, as if she steps quietly into a scene from out of nowhere.  The moral position she takes is humble.  She’s respectful in disagreement, and her violence seems to always be limited to only absolute necessity, even though, in almost all of her action scenes, she appears to be far superior in skill to any of her opponents.

I hadn’t seen anything before this by Hou Hsiao-Hsien.  Now I want to see everything he’s made.

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Give it another shot someday, Ryan. I was really disappointed by The Assassin when I saw it in Toronto last September, partly because my expectations were so high after reading about it for years. I saw the film again a few weeks later and was on the verge of tears nearly the entire time. It's one of the few films I've seen that completely blossomed for me on a second viewing.

Edited by Darren H
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  • 3 years later...

I nominated The Assassin for the top 100. I think this is possibly the greatest cinematic portrayal of conversion, its difficulty, pain, gradualness, and its joy, and conversion should be central to any discussion of faith. When Yinniang is confronted with a choice to adhere strictly to her upbringing, or cross examine it, she ends up discovering the true way to achieve peace in China, which was the point of her training, even if it ends up being in a different manner than she was taught.

It's also one of the most gorgeously beautiful films ever shot.

It's streaming for free on Tubi, if anyone wants to watch or rewatch it.

https://tubitv.com/movies/517442/the_assassin?utm_source=google-feed&tracking=google-feed

"Anyway, in general I love tragic artists, especially classical ones."

"Even the forms for expressing truth can be multiform, and this is indeed necessary for the transmission of the Gospel in its timeless meaning."

- Pope Francis, August 2013 interview with Antonio Spadaro

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I also think very highly of this film, both for its cinematic beauty and for its spiritual significance. It is a contemplative film if there ever was one.  I'm especially drawn to films that portray a spirit of peace and peacemaking, even when they also portray violence (and they usually do). I find that so rare in film, where violence is so often glorified in aesthetics and narrative.

Reading through several articles and supporting material in the book The Assassin: Hou Hsiao-hsien's World of Tang China really helped enrich the film for me and filled in a lot of the historical background that's not explained in the film. Here's a link to the front and back matter: https://hkupress.hku.hk/pro/con/1695.pdf I'd recommend the Intro and the translation of the Tang era short story that the film is based on--I really like how the film changed the story to emphasize the peacemaking and deemphasize the magical elements.

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> the greatest cinematic portrayal of conversion

Over in the John Ford thread, I recommended to Andrew that he watch Drums Along the Mohawk because of a scene that presents Henry Fonda's character's post-war trauma. I think about that scene whenever I watch The Assassin, particularly when she takes a bath and pulls her body into a tight ball. It's a rare moment of vulnerability for her and an opportunity for her to really experience grief.

Forgive this aside, but the greatest disappointment in my life as a critic is that when I finally got a chance to sit and talk with Hou Hsiao-hsien (about The Assassin), we had a terrible interpreter, so he was mostly confused by my questions and I was mostly confused by his answers. I sent the recording to a Chinese friend afterwards, and he confirmed it for me.

Edited by Darren H
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