Review: Killer tale ‘The Assassin’ a beautiful misfire

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

“The Assassin” is gorgeous to look at, but not all that compelling to watch.

Director Hou Hsiao-Hsien stages some breathtaking shots that would look stunning hung on a museum wall. But the mechanics of the story aren’t nearly as handsome, making “The Assassin” a better picture book than a film.

It’s set during ninth century China and centers on Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), a killer sent to take out key figures in the Tang Dynasty. She is eventually tasked with eliminating Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen), her former lover, who is now governor of the Weibo province.

It sounds like an action film, but the action comes in short bursts, often out of nowhere, and disappears just as quickly. Hsiao-Hsien is far more interested in the tranquility of nature (and the inner workings of government, which bring to mind the stiff trade federation nonsense of “The Phantom Menace”) than he is in the clashing of swords.

Working with cinematographer Ping Bin Lee (who counts Wong Kar-Wai’s “In the Mood for Love” among his credits), he shoots the rustling of trees and fog settling over a mountaintop with an air of quiet meditation. Indoors, he shoots through sheer materials that billow in the foreground. It’s almost as if the actors and the storyline are getting in the way of his vision.

Which in a way they are. With his emphasis on big picture shots of nature’s beauty, Hsiao-Hsien is commenting on the futility of human conflict against the everlasting essence of the earth. Feuds are settled, dynasties end, but Mother Nature outlasts us all. It’s too bad that his point is undercut by such a dull story.

agraham@detroitnews.com

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‘The

Assassin’

Grade: C

Not rated

Running time: 105 minutes