If I walk into a crowd and mention A Summer at Grandpa’s (1984), Café Lumière (2003) and Flight of the Red Balloon (2007), I’ll probably be met with a sea of blank faces. If I do that with a bunch of Chinese-movie aficionados, no doubt many will immediately think of Taiwanese film auteur Hou Hsiao-hsien.
“Film auteur” is the term used to describe a director whose personal creative vision is so strong and recognizable that not even the studios behind his or her movies can eliminate the distinctive cinematic signature. There are more film auteurs than you might guess — in the Chinese martial arts movie genre, we have, among others, Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Zhang Yi-mou (Hero) and Wong Kar-wai (The Grandmaster).
My goal with this blog is to introduce you to one more.
Normally, I don’t discuss martial arts films that I haven’t seen or that are pitched to the media as a “work in progress.” The reason: How many times have we all bought into the hype surrounding some martial arts movie star who’s in talks with so-and-so to make such-and-such a film — and it never happens?
In this case, however, I carefully considered the impact the aforementioned martial arts films have had, then looked ahead to the potential popularity of the motion picture that’s being helmed by Hou Hsiao-hsien — and promptly made an exception to my own rule.
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Six of Hou’s films have been nominated for the Palme d’Or (best film award) at the Cannes Film Festival. Not until he made The Assassin (Chinese title Nie Yinniang) did he garner the best director award at Cannes. Interestingly, it’s his first kung fu movie.
The Assassin has been 25 years in the making. Based on a short story derived from a compilation known as The Extensive Records of the Taiping Era, the film was funded by China and Taiwan. Set during the Tang dynasty (618–906), it focuses on a legendary female assassin named Nie Yinniang. Nie is played by Taiwanese actress Shu Qi, who co-starred with Jason Statham in The Transporter.
A young Nie is kidnapped by a Taoist nun, who trains the girl to become an assassin. She’s eventually tasked with killing corrupt officials. Because of her success, Nie becomes a feared vigilante, but her world begins to fall apart when she defies an order to eliminate Lord Tian Ji’an (portrayed by Chang Chen).
In addition to that intriguing plot, The Assassin also deserves our attention because it wasn’t designed to be a run-of-the-mill kung fu film. We won’t see any of Nie’s 13 years of training in the arts of assassination. We won’t watch over-embellished fight sequences and elaborate wire-work choreography. We won’t witness the hero battling her way up a ladder until the final showdown with the villain.
Instead, we will see Nie doing what a skilled assassin does: swiftly taking out targets and disappearing in an instant. The concept reminds me of the kind of fights we were treated to courtesy of two other film auteurs: Chu Yuan, who made movies for the Shaw Brothers in the 1970s and ’80s, and the great Akira Kurosawa, who was responsible for all those Japanese chanbara classics.
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Are you wondering who the fight choreographer for The Assassin is? Recall the iconic scene in Enter the Dragon when Bruce Lee says to a young lad, “Don’t think; feel. It is like a finger pointing away to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger, or you will miss all that heavenly glory.” That kid was Peter Tung Wei, and as the fight choreographer for the film, he sees not only the moon but also the stars.
With a budget of $15 million, The Assassin was picked up for American distribution by Well Go USA Entertainment. If it’s as dazzling as all signs indicate, it will make a killing at the box office.
(Photos Courtesy of Wild Bunch / Well Go USA Entertainment)