In 9th-century China, Nie Yinniang is a young woman who was abducted in childhood from a decorated general and raised by a nun who trained her in the martial arts. After 13 years of exile, she is returned to the land of her birth as an exceptional assassin, with orders to kill her betrothed husband-to-be. She must confront her parents, her memories, and her long-repressed feelings in a choice to sacrifice the man she loves or break forever with the sacred way of the righteous assassins.
'The Assassin' is based on Pei Xing's ninth century martial arts story "Nie Yinniang." The film is set in the same century, during the decline of the Tang Dynasty when the leaders of the Weibo province tried to distance themselves from the Imperial Court. Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien was the Winner of the Best Director at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival for leading his team to create one of the genre's most visually stunning works.
The title character is Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), a Weibo General's daughter who at a young age was kidnapped and trained as assassin by a nun, Jiaxin (Fang-yi Sheu). When the film opens, Nie is tasked with killing a man Jiaxin claims murdered two of his own family members. The man is on horseback, traveling in a large procession, but Nie executes him with great skill and what appears to be little effort.
Yet she's not a heartless killer. She fails her next task to kill a governor by showing mercy because of an innocent child at the scene who could have been injured. Jiaxin is very disappointed, and as punishment and to toughen Nie's resolve, she sends Nie home to assassinate her cousin Tian Ji'an (Chang Chen), who is the military governor of Weibo. When they were young, their marriage was arranged, but with Nie's disappearance, he instead took Lady Tian (Zhou Yun) as a wife.
'The Assassin' is not a traditional martial arts film, as the focus is on the characters rather than fighting. There are a lot of scenes with little to no dialogue between characters as they contemplate what's occurring. Because of this, it makes the story difficult to piece together at times because the exposition is very limited. This also leads to some confusion with the characters as they make their way through this film as they would in real life. Along with Tian Ji'an, there is Tian Xing (Lei Zhenyu), a fellow military leader in Weibo. Jiaxin has twin sister, Princess Jiacheng (also played by Fang-yi Sheu).
Hsiao-Hsien toys with viewers' expectations, especially those who come to this film for the martial arts. What's on display is action that is as graceful as it is violent and the compositions are wonderful. However, during one sequence, he cuts into a fight with Nie in medias res, and then teases by shooting from a distance. Other guards are shown running to join the fray but the view is blocked. While it certainly makes one curious, it's also a touch frustrating.
'The Assassin' might be too art house for martial arts fans and vice versa, but those who find themselves at the intersection of that Venn diagram may be satisfied by this exquisite-looking film that moves at its own pace.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Well Go USA has released 'The Assassin' on a 25GB Region A Blu-ray disc in a standard blue keepcase with a cardboard sleeve. The disc starts playing the trailers listed below before going to the menu.
The video has been given a 1080p/AVC-MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at 1.40:1 with one scene in 1.85:1. 'The Assassin' opens in black and white and a great contrast is revealed as Nie is dressed in an inky black robe while Jiaxin stands next to her in a bright white robe.
The quality of the contrast remains when the film transitions into color. Upon Nie's return to Weibo, she stands in a brightly lit room where reddish brown walls of the building interior can be seen in the foreground while in the background a portion of the frame contains the dim, blue of the setting sun.
A wide range of vivid hues are on display in the costumes as well as in nature like the bright orange sunrise shown during the opening credits. The garments also show very fine texture detail. There's great example of how good the shadow delineation when Nie and Tian fight on the rooftop at night.
The visuals offer great depth and sharpness, though one scene with Tian and his concubine, Huji (Hsieh Hsin-Ying), is shot through drapes, intentionally to affect the focus. The picture is clean and free from artifacts.
The audio is available in Mandarin DTS 5.1 HDMA and 2.0 Stereo. The former delivers a slightly immersive experience as ambient effects fill the surrounds. Birds chirp while a character plays a zither and tells the story of a bluebird. Wind can be heard rustling through trees and across channels. Other imaging takes place as arrows fly, horses move around, and during the aforementioned rooftop fight. The bass is solid in its support of the score and effects. The track comes through with a balanced mix and a pleasing dynamic range.
The overall grade is hampered by the limited bonus features, but 'The Assassin' is a film worth viewing, especially for those who appreciate cinematography and production design, which can be appreciated because of the very fine job Well Go USA has done with the HD presentation.