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article imageReview: ‘The Assassin’ presents a strong, silent female hero Special

By Sarah Gopaul     Nov 3, 2015 in Entertainment
‘The Assassin’ is a high-tension, female-driven action movie that balances action with aesthetic, and trusts in the ability of its lead actress.
While female heroes are still an uncommon occurrence in cinema, they are more prevalent in some genres than others. Martial arts pictures boast a number of women protagonists who prove capable in a variety of circumstances, including physical altercations. Whether on a mission of revenge or attempting to complete a quest, these women match the proficiency of their male counterparts and fulfill their requirements as hero to a tee. The Assassin features one of these female action stars.
Yinniang (Shu Qi) was relinquished by her parents to be raised by a nun beyond their borders; but rather than a traditional curriculum, she was taught to be an expert assassin. Now a grown woman, Yinniang’s teacher is sending her home to complete a final test that proves she is capable of being a stone cold killer: she must murder her cousin (Chang Chen) who inherited the throne. However there are other murderous plots unfolding, tangled with betrayal and black magic. Yinniang’s skills are an asset, but her emotional attachment to her home and family may not be a weakness she can easily shed.
Asian cinema has been a paradigm of style since the beginning. The auteurs who made their mark in the genre did so by demonstrating great skill as filmmakers, not only in capturing fight choreography but also via the manner in which the story is framed and executed. Much like Yasujirō Ozu’s Late Spring, Hou Hsiao-hsien favours minimal dialogue paired with expressive actions and interspersed with empty landscapes. The first part of the narrative is presented in stark black and white as Yinniang is dispatched to slay a nobleman travelling with his entourage. The splendour of this sequence is extraordinary, though it may have been appealing to see the entire narrative use the same monochromatic tones.
The action scenes feature slow and deliberate movements, especially when compared to the blurry pace seen frequently in genre pictures. Qi appears very capable of dispatching her opponents without appearing as if they are conceding to her. Yinniang materializes in her black robes to overtake any enemy, though her cousin proves a more formidable challenger. A couple of monologues and detailed conversations are pieced together to describe Yinniang’s history and why her grievance against her cousin may be justified. These words are delivered with purpose and without distraction, ensuring viewers grasp the importance of their meaning. But her hesitation to kill her cousin is not attributed to petty emotions, but rather a calculated decision that she feels is for the greater good; in actuality, taking revenge for her heartbreak without pause would have been the malicious course of action.
Hou Hsiao-hsien was the winner of the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival 2015 and the film is Taiwan's official entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2016 Oscars. If you’d like to see more female action heroes, check out TIFF’s “Beyond Badass: Female Action Heroes” series, which runs until Dec. 3.
Director: Hou Hsiao-hsien
Starring: Shu Qi, Chang Chen and Lei Zhen Yu
More about The assassin, Shu Qi, Chang Chen, Movie, Martial arts
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