Monday, January 4, 2016
The Assassin (orig. Nie yin niang) 
Film Comment (R. Liang) interview director / the film's two key stars
APUM.com (A. Saéz) review*
aVoir-aLire.com (G. Crespo) review*
RogerEbert.com (J. Monji) review
Sight & Sound (G. Andrew) review
Slant Magazine (J. Catalgo) review
South China Morning Post (E. Lee) review
The Assassin (orig. Nie yin niang)  [IMDb] [AW] (directed and cowritten by Hsiao-Hsien Hou [IMDb] [AW] along with Cheng Ah [IMDb] and Hai-Meng Hsieh [IMDb] based on the short story by Yuan Xingpei [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] [IMDb]) is a top-quality Chinese / Taiwanese "period piece" / "martial arts film" if perhaps with (at least in English) a needlessly / quite unfortunately reductive title. The film played recently at the 2015 (51st Annual) Chicago International Film Festival and has subsequently returned to Chicago to play week-long runs at the Music Box Theater and the Gene Siskel Film Center.
Set in the closing stages of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 C.E.) in/around the rebellious / already (then) de facto independent Weibo Province [en.wikip] [zh.wikip]* (_perhaps_ "kinda like Taiwan" today ...) the story centers on a 20-something woman named Nie Yianning (played quite excellently by Shu Qi [IMDb] [AW]) -- after whom the film, in Chinese, was named. As per RogerEbert.com's reviewer Jana Monji (link above), Nie Yianning's name is indeed quite evocative - Yianning means "Secret Daughter" and Nie the surname means "Said in Whispers."
So... Nie Yianning was born and spent much of her early childhood in a tiny, thoroughly inconsequential village in rural Weibo Province and yet had been betrothed (as a child) to a distant (and richer) cousin of a similar age named Tian Ji'an (played by Chang Chen [IMDb] [AW]) back when the Tian family was _merely_ "quite rich."
However, when the Weibo Province made its play to break away from the rest of China, the Tian family became the breakaway Province's de facto rulers and it became important for young Ji'an to marry someone "appropriate to [his family's] _new_ station." So poor Yianning was left in the village while Ji'an married and had children with a "better-born" Lady (played by Zhou Yun [IMDb] [AW]) and began to live as "a little Emperor" (of the breakaway Province).
So what happens to girl like Nie Yianning, who was betrothed by her family to someone in childhood, who when the time came, chose to marry someone "richer"? Well her family handed her over to a strange "princess turned wandering warrior nun" (IMHO played magnificently by Sheu Fang-yi [IMDb]) whose backstory would certainly justify its own film. Well this "princess turned wandering warrior nun" trains Nie Yianning to be an exceptionally lethal assassin, wreaking "black clothed" (of course...) "dropping in out of the blue" vengeance on all sort of powerful (usually male) potentates in the region. Nie Yianning silently "drops in" ("like the wind..."), slits the powerful evil man's throat, slips out ... and is done. Another powerful "Evil Doer" meets his (one hopes ...) "just deserts."
And Nie Yianning is certainly "good" at what she does. We watch her deflecting swords and arrows launched at her by terrified / awestruck guards of said powerful "Evil doers" as if they were mosquitoes or butterflies.
Well, after a short 5 min, b&w introduction introducing us to the awesomely well-trained / supremely "good at what she does" Nie Yianning, she's given by her "former princess turned wandering warrior nun" mentor her next mission. Guess who she's asked to kill? ;-) ...
Can she do it? From a purely "skills" POV, certainly _yes_. There's NO place that the 20-something, "hurt as a little girl," "secret daughter, spoken of in whispers..." Nie Yianning can not penetrate. BUT _can_ she do _this_ "job" (even if her assigned target _certainly_ "kinda deserved it")?
The rest of the story follows ... ;-)
It makes for a quite compelling story, and the cinematography, both indoors and out, is once again simply exquisite. Anyone who's ever enjoyed traditional chinese paintings with their impossibly steep fog strewn cliffs or beautiful silky interiors will certainly appreciate this film.
So good job folks, very good job. I just wish that the film's English title didn't simply reduce Nie Yianning to "The Assassin." Her name was far more evocative than that ...
* Foreign language webpages are most easily translated using Google's Chrome Browser.
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