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Review: The Assassin – “Intoxicatingly beautiful”

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After she fails to kill her target, after an attack of conscience, an assassin is sent home to fulfil the mission, after years away in training to become the ruthless killer she now is. The assassin in question, played by Qi Shu, is a fascinating character, dropped back into her old world and forced to decide where her loyalties really lie. When she fights, it is with an elegant ease and her movements are hypnotic in their grace and careful execution. These movements are so expressive that she manages to speak volumes, without often uttering a word.

For a martial arts film, there isn’t really a whole lot of martial arts in The Assassin – but this is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, when it does happen, the fighting is incredible. The thing to realise is that the fighting – impressive as these sequences may be – is not really the point of this film. The Assassin is intoxicatingly beautiful, full of sumptuous shots of scenery, billowing drapes and some insanely intricate costume and hair work. The story might have been largely lost on western audiences but the fundamentals are there and they carry you through, even if you’re not entirely sure who belongs to which clan.

There’s an intense stoicism to the characters in the film, too, which means that there is rarely an outward display of emotion. Rather than having loud screaming matches, heated displays of love or gut-wrenching tears, things are largely said with glances, silences and small gestures. This means that a long time can pass where nothing much has really happened. People have talked, discussed their options and considered the possibilities (usually behind those see-through billowing drapes mentioned previously). When something loud does then happen, it is all the more commanding and the impact is that much stronger.

Director Hsiao-Hsien Hou has created a visual delight here, a film full of detail and beauty, and that beauty that it conveys is both alluring and haunting. There just so happens to be a plot running through it at the same time.

4-out-of-5

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