The spectrum that typically comes to mind for the martial-arts genre ranges from the briskly-paced and hyper-violent to the prolonged and poetic, yet both sides usually exhibit more than enough energetic fight sequences to earn the distinction of an action movie. Leave it to a low-key, calculated director like Taiwan's legendary Hou Hsiao-Hsien to challenge that status quo with a trip outside his comfort zone, or, perhaps more accurately, by incorporating his comfort zone into the rhythm of wuxia storytelling. Enter The Assassin, a historical drama about political maneuverings and family woes that's driven by the decisions and actions of a "woman in black", a killer at the end of her training in the midst of a conflict with the ethical boundaries of her profession. Hou Hsiao-Hsien's carefully-crafted imagery and purposeful dramatic style forge a unique morality tale in his long-awaited return to feature-length cinema, where the displays of the assassin's capabilities exist to compliment her personal journey instead of deliberately getting the blood flowing.
Loosely adapted from a historical short story, The Assassin takes place in eighth-century China amid political insecurity and flux during the Tang dynasty. A talented young assassin, Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), who was taken at a young age to learn the craft, fails to complete an essential duty near the end of her training process, due to a judgment call on her part. At the behest of her master, the Taoist nun Jiaxin (Fang-Yi Sheu), she is instructed to complete another mission as a mixture of punishment and a test of her resolve toward her duties: to kill the military governor of northern China's Weibo province, Tian Ji'an (Chang Chen), her cousin to whom she was once betrothed. When she arrives, Yinniang confronts the events of her past that forced her down the path of becoming an assassin, which again puts her in a place where she must choose between her personal code of ethics and the obedient code of professional, objective killers.
The Assassin starts off with a graceful black-and-white sequence that swiftly establishes the scope of Nie Yinniang's talent as a killer and her ethical restrictions as an assassin, an effective primer for the temperament of a warrior whose silence and stoicism rarely convey her emotional state. Hou Hsiao-Hsien lets her actions speak for themselves amid the silence while she's surrounded by the rustling of trees and the movement of sheer curtains, providing a frame of reference for the (mostly) Academy ratio color cinematography that follows upon arriving at her new destination. The director's awareness of body language and aesthetics as their own storytelling devices result in an unhurried pace within his martial-arts drama, lingering on the strums of a traditional Chinese guqin, steam emitting from a bathtub, and melancholy conversations about the assassin's lineage amid a stunning realization of the era. Sophisticated costume work and set designs toe the line between iconic and naturalistic throughout the dazzling camerawork from Mark Lee Ping Bing, sumptuously transporting our point-of-view to the period while giving the eyes plenty to absorb.
The steady throbbing of a drum in The Assassin's otherwise quiet background ambiance facilitates an uneasy and intuitive escalation of suspense, heralding the presence of the much talked-about assassin around her targets. Anticipating her stealthy arrival in the ornate, heavily-guarded spaces of royalty naturally becomes one of the draws to the tale, yet her enigmatic motivations and mortal limitations transform expectations of what's to come. Nie Yinniang's lineage interweaves with the esoteric frustrations and collisions of the region's politics into a tale with a specific focus and layers of intrigue, depicting how she's turned into a lethal byproduct of the archaic and fickle system. The piercing eyes and sculpted jaw of Three Times actress Shu Qi express just the right amount of saddened determination for the demands of the role, her sharp features emerging from shadows while eavesdropping on the scheming of politicians and long, forlorn conversations involving her past. While these scenes can, at times, become too engrossed with their own lengthy takes and atmospheric rhythm, there's also something markedly entrancing about their personalized tempo.
When action scenes do emerge throughout The Assassin, they're not without a clear purpose or an organic extension from Nie Yinniang's conflict of virtue over service. A combination of tight, inconstant choreography and distanced shots of the combat -- typically against the dazzling mountainous and forested expanses -- result in potent sequences that relish the quick snick of blades and the thump of arrows into bodies, emphasizing her stealth capabilities in gripping yet modest bursts. By design, these aren't the gory, exploitative displays traditionally found in the genre, instead kept concise and matter-of-fact in how she responds to groups of armed soldiers or duels with other capable assassins. Staying faithful to his intimate perspective, Hou Hsiao-Hsien holds the focus on an artful character portrayal of the assassin herself instead of the abundant carnage she could feasibly leave in her wake, lending weight to every homicidal decision she undertakes along her journey toward redemption. Nie Yinniang's decisions have sprawling repercussions across the region, but they're not as rousing as the personal impact they exact upon her outlook on what she's been brought up to do.
Video and Audio:
The Assassin drops in on Blu-ray from Well Go USA correctly framed at 1.37:1 for the majority of its runtime, occasionally branching out to 1.78:1 to heighten the visual impact of specific scenes, all of which are beautifully captured in a 1080p AVC transfer. Contrast balance and color saturation vary wildly depending on the scene's intention: footage outdoors sticks to beautiful natural shades within foliage, rocks, and skin tones, with splendid black level balance and depth of field; interior shots are more complex with their lighting and saturation levels, rendering muted tones and elevated black levels. Sometimes, contrast appears too light in service of the cinematography's demands, notably in dimly-lit exterior sequences both in black-and-white and in color. Details varies as well -- crisper in plain daylight; softer and occasionally harsher indoors -- but contours in facial features and hair are always tight, fine elements in garments and set decor are quite clear, and dense details outdoors are admirably responsive.
The audio for The Assassin certainly doesn't sneak up on you with its surround-sound activity, actively engaging all channels throughout the majority of this Mandarin 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. Wind blowing through the trees, galloping horses, and forward motion of projectiles expand across the soundstage to both aggressive and understated ends. The thump of arrows, the galloping of horse hooves, and a tossed statue landing with a thud on the wooden, carpeted floor engage the bass channel with precision, which carries over to the rhythm of a drum in the music score. Subtler effects, like the swipe of a blade and the rustling of feet during a fight, are crisp and aware of the front end without fault, splendidly balanced against the dialogue from the center channel. The balance tends to be somewhat lopsided with the surround channels, though, and some echo effects in the interiors have a metallic twang about them that's unsatisfying. Beyond that, though, it's a fantastic audio treatment.. The English subtitles are grammatically on point; also available in French.
Along with a Trailer (2:57, 16x9 HD), Well Go USA have also included a batch of four imported Behind the Scene featurettes, each brief but offering nice glimpses at the creation of the film and some substantive interview material. Nie Yinniang (3:11, 16x9 HD) offers a general over of the making of the film; The Actors: No Rehearsals (3:45; 16x9 HD) features Shu Qi and the other performers discussing their experiences shooting the film; The Fights Between Masters (2:57, 16x9 HD) briefly touches on the pragmatic fight choreography; and A Time Machine to the Tang Dynasty (3:01; 16x9 HD) spends far too little time elaborating on the stunning costume and production design.
Hou Hsiao-Hsien's The Assassin takes the trappings of a historical wuxia film and infuses them with his deliberate-paced, sensory-infused perspective, resulting in a personal drama that branches away from expectations one might have about the genre. The director uses the assassin's stealth and lethal capabilities as intermittent extensions of the intimate and political story going on within, while the hypnotic beauty and profound introspection built around this "woman in black" fill that void left by a lack of persistent action. Concise fight sequences and restrained but stunning costume work hold onto that perspective, never losing sight on the story's objective in painting a gorgeous portrait of a killer with a downhearted, fated past and boundaries for her conscience. Well Go USA's Blu-ray looks and sounds terrific, though a lack of more substantial features and the drawn-out tempo of the film itself keep the home-video package at strongly Recommended marks.