Stunning is the only word that keeps coming to mind when I think of director Hou Hsiaor-hsien’s slow-burning historical martial arts epic, The Assassin. The transcendent film, shot in the rare 1.37:1 aspect ratio with gorgeous cinematography from Lee Ping Bin is also lush with lavish set and costume designs. The occasional action sequence sets the screen alight, but these only dot the intense drama.
At the center of the story is the beautiful Shu Qi (Tai Chi Hero, The Transporter) who plays the fearsome assassin Nie Yinniang in Tang Dynasty China. Abducted from her well-decorated military General father as a child, she was raised by a nun and trained to be a deadly assassin. After living in exile for 13 years, Yinniang is sent back to kill the man (Chen Chang, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) she was once betrothed to. She finds herself caught between love and hatred, two forms of loyalty as she tries to fulfill her duty to both her clan and her lover. Expansive yet also quiet and claustrophobic, The Assassin takes all the best elements of wuxia – the action, the dazzling cinematography, the period settings – and strips away some of the sillier parts. The result is something cerebral, almost nonlinear, and passionate. Hou doesn’t just play with the genre, he plays with filmmaking, starting in black and white, switching to color, shooting in the tight 1.37:1 frame, yet shooting one, beautifully colorful scene in 1.85:1. It’s almost as if he wants to say that the film, just like life, is random and unexpected, just as Yinniang’s journey in The Assassin takes her to some painfully unexpected places.
Shot in the Super 35 (35mm) format, The Assassin does not have that clean, digital look so many “films” seem to have today, even when they add in artificial “grain” or “noise.” There’s a natural layer of film grain in this AVC 1080p encodement and some shots look a bit softer and grittier than others. Overall, however, it is a brilliant looking transfer with vibrant color and excellent contrast and textures. The one issue that remains in this StudioCanal release that was present in the Well GO USA Blu-ray release of The Assassin is the slight problem of black crush. It’s minor, but noticeable. It isn’t excessive, so detail isn’t irreparably harmed in the darker scenes or in darker colors.
The audio tracks stay pretty much the same as the U.S. release from Well Go USA, only StudioCanal kicks up the 2.0 stereo track to LPCM from the U.S. release’s Dolby Digital. Apart from that, the Mandarin DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is still the track to select and it is no less impressive the second time through. It is beautifully balanced with clean, clear dialogue that just sometimes has a touch too much reverberation, but it is easily overlooked when swells of atmospheric sound effects such as breezes rustling though branches, crickets and cicadas, crackling of wood fires, and the clank of swordplay cradle you in a tight 360-degree soundfield.
The same extras that accompanied the film on the previous U.S. Blu-ray release from Well Go USA are mirrored on this UK release from StudioCanal, minus the original theatrical trailer.
- Behind the Scenes
- Nie Yinnang (1.78:1; 1080i/60; 00:03:17)
- The Actors: No Rehearsals (1.78:1; 1080i/60; 00:03:52)
- The Fights Between Masters (1.78:1; 1080i/60; 00:03:02)
- A Time Machine to the Tang Dynasty (1.78:1; 1080i/60; 00:03:07)
The Final Assessment
The Assassin may be too slow for some people expecting the usual sort of high-flying, wuxia films that spin-off into fanciful, nonstop action. For anyone looking for something more thoughtful and breathtaking to look at with incredibly passionate performances, then this is the film for you.
The Assassin won Best Director (Hou) at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival and the Cannes Soundtrack Award for composer (Lim Giong).
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