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The Assassin

(2015) *** 1/2 Unrated
107 min. Central Motion Pictures Corporation. Director: Hsiao-hsien Hou. Cast: Qi Shu, Chen Chang, Satoshi Tsumabuki.

/content/films/4844/1.jpgThe "wuxia," or martial arts film, has become something of a rite of passage for Asian filmmakers, even those not obviously inclined to the genre. Taiwanese-born Ang Lee inadvertently led a charge with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Chinese auteur Zhang Yimou followed with Hero, and now Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien (Flight of the Red Balloon), thus far best known for his artful observation of urban anomie, joins the fray with The Assassin.

But anyone who knows Hou's idiosyncratic work can guess that genre will bend to him before he will bend to genre. The Assassin makes for an almost perversely unsatisfying "wuxia" film by contemporary standards. No one flies, and Hou shoots the rare bursts of fighting deliberately too close or too far away to revel in the choreography and skill of the performers. Rather, The Assassin is a Hou film and, therefore an aesthete's delight, which means this ninth-century historical fiction—based on the Tang Dynasty short story "Nie Yinniang"—has all the lushness and lavish attention to detail we've come to expect from ancient-China period films. The Assassin breathes more than it talks, patiently taking in its landscapes and its silk-curtained interiors. You'd be forgiven for assuming The Assassin is about those silk curtains, blowing gently in the breeze as they do and reflecting, in their semi-sheer sheen, flickering flames nearby.

In more conventional terms, The Assassin serves as a feminist parable of a princess turned woman warrior (Shu Qi as the titular Nie Yinniang) whose job becomes personal when her handler, a tough-as-nails nun (Zhou Yun), punishes a recent failure by sending the assassin to murder her beloved cousin Chang Chen). Raising the stakes: palace intrigue as small provinces (in this case, Weibo) rise up to challenge imperial authority, and courtiers bicker over the winning responses. Partly because of our culture gap, but mostly because Hou is who he is, The Assassin plays out in what's, more or less, a studied obliqueness. If the story makes few concessions in clarifying historical rivalries, it also includes symbolic monologues to bolster our senses of character and theme, and the smoldering looks passed between the leads speak greater volumes than any dime-store dialogue could.

Hou picked up the Best Director prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival by consistently impressing on viewers images of transcendent, melancholy beauty, including cinematic tributes like the opening movement in black-and-white “Academy ratio” before transitioning to vibrant, full-color widescreen. And indeed, pageantry is partly the point, including a music-and-dance interlude and the ritualistic sword duels (though they be swift, scary, and joyless). But Hou remains far more interested in taking moments as they come: a child’s curiosity delightedly observed by otherwise pitiless adults, the countless decisions of Nie Yinniang’s angel of life and death. Taken on the level of a lucid dream, The Assassin has primordial imagery and psychological angst to spare.

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Aspect ratios: 1.41:1, 1.84:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 1/26/2016

Distributor: Well Go USA

Well Go USA does a great job of transferring Hou Hsiao-Hsien's 35mm film into a beaut of a Blu-ray, one that delivers the source material with superb A/V fidelity and offers a smattering of short video-based extras. Picture quality is terrific, impressing most with rich color and palpable texture (including light, organic film grain). There's engaging diversity to the imagery, including the opening black-and-white section and shifting aspect ratios, the narrowest of which gets windowboxed. Well-rendered contrast and detail (which gets understandably gauzy in the many scenes shot through curtains) contribute to the overall effect of handsome and expertly resolved picture quality. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix also ranges, from nuanced interiors and quiet dialogue scenes to thunderous outbreaks of music and martial arts. On both scores, the Blu-ray is up to snuff, employing surround channels, as in the theatrical presentation, to the end of subtle immersion while always prioritizing clean, clear dialogue (Mandarin with removal English subtitles).

Bonus features include a section called Behind the Scene that comprises four brief, subtitled featurettes made up of tantalizing B-roll and cast and crew interviews with the principals: "Nie Yinniang" (3:11, HD), "The Actors: No Rehearsals" (3:45, HD), "The Fights Between Masters" (2:55, HD), and "A Time Machine to the Tang Dynasty" (3:01, HD). Rounding out the disc is a "Trailer" (2:37, HD).


Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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