Movie review: An aloof Assassin

Movie review: An aloof Assassin
PHOTO: Shaw Organisation

There is little doubt that this is an important film - the venerated Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien has not released a feature in eight years and this take on the wuxia (historical martial arts) genre is his picture with the biggest budget to date.

But The Assassin (PG, 106 minutes, opens tomorrow, ***½) is not an easy watch.

The first 10 minutes, shot in black and white, roots the viewer in space and time - the Tang dynasty in the quasi-autonomous province of Weibo, with Yin Niang (Shu Qi) as an assassin.

After that, the visuals switch to colour. As if in opposition, the storytelling becomes dauntingly opaque. Scenes begin and end either too early or too late. Characters are framed by windows, doorways and gauzy curtains, backs to the camera or their faces impenetrable masks. They speak poetically or gnomically - usually both - alluding to events off-screen or in the past.

"Cut him down like a bird in flight," orders the nun Jiaxin (Sheu Fang-yi) to her acolyte Yin Niang. Yin Niang's fight scenes are more like sense impressions - not in a shaky-cam way that emphasises excitement, but as faraway events that take place in natural settings.

Battles happen in near silence, behind trees, the figures small against the landscape. Yin Niang kills in a flash of movement, then vanishes. The camera lingers on the mountains, birds and lakes after humans have walked out of the shot.

You find yourself wondering if you saw what you think you saw, or if it was your mind inventing facts to fill the gaps. What becomes clear is that Yin Niang is ordered to kill the governor of Weibo, Tian Jian (Chang Chen), but their shared backstories do not emerge until the midway point.

Hou's aloofness stands in contrast to something like Wong Kar Wai's wuxia attempt Ashes Of Time Redux (2008) which, with its rich colour palette, flowing movement and busy soundtrack, could not be more different. If Ashes is a banquet, then Assassin is more like molecular gastronomy.

Hou's interests lie in timelessness, nature's rhythms and compositional elegance rather than telling a ripping yarn. He has taken the rigour of his hero, Japanese film-maker Yasujiro Ozu, applying it to wuxia which, like the Western (of the cowboy variety), is the most pliable of genres.

The Assassin - winner of the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival for Hou, and a nomination for the Palme d'Or, the festival's highest award - contains an austere beauty, but it is made by a cineaste for cineastes. The rest of us might prefer something that does not hold us at arm's length.

In contrast, there is nothing static or studied about Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (PG, 132 minutes, opens tomorrow, **½). This middle movie in the young-adult sci-fi trilogy is what too many middle movies tend to be: a placeholder. The Gladers, having escaped the Maze, are being looked after by Janson (Aiden Gillen) in a locked facility, along with dozens of young people from other mazes. Thomas (Dylan O'Brien) suspects that everything is not as it seems and soon the Gladers' curiosity lands them in The Scorch, the wasteland outside their fortress, across which they must trek.

Here, bits of information about a global disaster trickles out - we know it when Thomas knows it.

The storytelling is mechanical. There is peril of some kind; the kids must run or fight. Then, role-playing game-style, they meet a new character who imparts a clue. Rinse and repeat.

The suspense created by the first movie is flushed away as the big picture comes together - like too many sci-fi properties that open with bizarre premises, there is so much at stake to be explained that scarcely any explanation will be sufficient. Director Wes Ball returns from the first movie to helm this, working with a script co-written by T.S. Nowlin, who also worked on the first.

They have the job of selling the explanation for why the world is the way it is, which they accomplish by throwing as much running, jumping and shooting at the screen as they can, in the hope that no one notices that none of it makes sense.

Credit must be given to them for smoothly stitching three sci-fi flicks in one: We get a zombie apocalypse, a scrappy rebel alliance fighting an empire and a Logan's Run-style ageist dystopia (1976).

In the last movie of the trilogy, due in 2017, I am not ruling out dinosaur theme parks or intelligent apes.

johnlui@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on September 9, 2015.
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