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Brooding yet gorgeous 'Assassin' is a little too moody for its own good
Qi Shu as Nie Yinniang in The Assassin. - photo by Josh Terry
THE ASSASSIN 2 stars Chen Chang, Qi Shu, Fang-yi Sheu, Nikki Hsin-Ying Hsieh; not rated, but probable PG-13 (violence); Broadway

Never break an engagement with a Chinese assassin. Thats the clearest message that comes from The Assassin, a brooding martial arts drama from director Hsiao-Hsien Hou.

The film is set in ninth-century China during the decline of the Tang Dynasty. The emperor is struggling to retain control of several Chinese provinces, including Weibo, which sees the bulk of the action. In an effort to restore the proper pecking order, the emperor dispatches an assassin to take out Lord Tian Jian (Chen Chang), Weibos current leader.

The assassin is Nie Yinniang (Qi Shu) a native of Weibo, who has spent years under the cold tutelage of Princess Nun Jiaxin (Fang-yi Sheu). Yinniang is a fiercely effective student, but she betrays her emotionless exterior when an early mission to execute a governor fails because she cant bring herself to kill the man in front of his young child.

This weakness is reflected onto her mission for the emperor as well. As children, Yinniang and Jian were promised as part of an arranged marriage, but the commitment was violated when Jian was later married to Huji (Nikki Hsin-Ying Hsieh) for political reasons. Things get even more complicated when Yinniang learns that Huji is pregnant.

The Assassin is a beautiful film to watch but a challenge to follow. Every character is costumed to elaborate perfection, outfitted in ornate clothing saturated in gorgeous color. The cinematography is also impressive, capturing mist-covered mountain landscapes and haunting Chinese architecture.

These visuals are underscored by a deliberate, brooding pace from Hou that borders on the tedious. Simple shots containing a minimum of action are stretched several seconds past a normal cut time. In the hands of a Hollywood director, The Assassin might be pared down to the length of a half-hour television show.

The slow pace and brooding mood is meant to create an air of suspense and mystery, but it almost does it too well. It would help if so much of the sparse dialogue wasnt dedicated to long stretches of exposition. The Assassin tells us a lot more than it shows us, and for a martial arts film, there isnt a whole lot of fighting.

The telling instead of showing makes it hard to get emotionally invested in whats going on. The Assassin portrays an interesting moral conflict, but by keeping us at arms length, the film prevents the conflict from being as compelling as it might have been.

This is chiefly the case with Yinniang. American viewers might recognize Shu from the first Transporter movie back in 2002. Here she plays the opposite character from her schoolgirl damsel in distress, though. Yinniang is distant, stoic and deadly, draped in black where the rest of the cast opts for vivid color.

There are definitely things to like here. But you dont have to suffer from a 21st-century lack of attention span to find The Assassin a little slow for your tastes. Longtime fans of Asian cinema will be best suited to appreciate Hous effort, but new initiates might be better advised to find a different gateway to the genre.

The Assassin is not rated but would fall in the PG to PG-13 range for some nonbloody action violence.
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