SDAFF 2015: Best Film of the Festival (to me) – Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s ASSASSIN
How many of you know any of the following films: Summer at Grandpa’s (1984); Café Lumiere (2003) and Flight of the Red Balloon (2007)? I imagine a sea of blank faces staring at the blog thinking…doesn’t sound like martial arts movies to me. Correct. They’re well known movies shot by Taiwanese film auteur Hou Hsiao-hsien. A film auteur refers to a director whose personal creative vision as a director is so strong and recognizable that even the film studio system involved in the movie can’t eliminate the director’s distinct cinematic signature. Three Chinese film auteurs you probably had never heard of until they did their first martial arts film are Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Zhang Yi-mou (Hero) and Wong Kar-wai (The Grandmaster).
Twenty five years in the making, last night’s film at SDAFF, The Assassin (Chinese title Nie Yinniang) has been on the top of the international film critics most wanted listed for the past eight years ever since we knew that it was going to be Hou’s next film. Not only to date, has six of Hou’s films been nominated for the Palme d’Or (best film award) at previous Cannes Film Festivals but it also took his first kung fu and last night’s film at SDAFF, The Assassin (Chinese title Nie Yinniang), to finally earn Hou the Best Director Award at Cannes 2015. It’s also up for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Picture.
During last night’s screening, which was sold out three days ago with 80 people turned away at the door last night, the jam packed audience sat in awe and glimmering silence as each scene unraveled before their eyes and ears. Minimal dialogue, long takes and almost no martial arts action didn’t deter the audience for a minute…they were more glued to the screen than construction worker Jerry being stuck to an I-beam by Krazy Glue during a mid-1970s TV advert…and that’s the story. (google it if you don’t get it)
So what’s Assassin’s story? Based on a short story from a compilation known as The Extensive Records Of The Taiping Era, the China/Taiwan funded Assassin is set during the Tang Dynasty and centers around the legend of the female assassin Nie Yinniang (Taiwanese actress Shu Qi). Kidnapped as a child by a Taoist nun, the nun trains Nie to become a lethal, feared assassin, tasked with killing corrupt officials. Yet everything begins to fall apart after Nie defies the order to kill Lord Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen).
Other attention grabbers? This is not your usual wu xia film. We don’t see any of Nie’s 13 years of ardent assassin training, over embellished fight sequences and elaborate wirework choreography shot at breathtaking locations or the hero battling up the ladder until the final villainous showdown. Let’s face it, a great assassin swiftly takes out their target and is gone in an instant…and this is what Nie beautifully and succinctly does.
So who’s the fight choreographer? Think Enter the Dragon and the wee lad that Bruce Lee says to, “Don’t think…feeeeel. It is like a finger pointing away to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.” The kid was Peter Tung Wei and he now not only sees the moon but also the big stars.
With a budget of US $15 million, Assassin looks, plays and feels like a $50 million movie and is filled with so many dazzling displays of visual imagery, it’s the kind of movie that film students and movie lovers can dissect and discuss for hours. My friends and I stood in the underground parking lot for over an hour breaking down the story, as many of the gorgeous shots we could remember, and the music.
Hou has basically redefined the wu xia genre and made it his own. To director Hou Hsiao-Hsien, in a word…Bravissimo, man.