Kung Fu Concussion Discussion - The Assassin
Updated: Mar 14
It’s almost not right to throw this in with the usual fare I’ve come to associate with the Kung Fu Concussion Discussion, but it was the pretense under which I bought The Assassin…so this is probably as good a place for it as any. The way I’m hoping to play this segment of the website is that, sure, I have 97 public domain kung fu movies to go through…thanks to Mill Creek Entertainment…but I’ve also picked up additional films to serve as “good kung fu”…either current or classic films that will serve to put the wind back in my sails after trudging through the dreck for prolonged periods.
Thus, I opted to put The Assassin into the blu-ray player. My reasons for picking it up in the first place were the many positive reviews I’d heard or read. The cover of the disc even advertises that the film got a ‘Fresh’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I hate that they’re starting to do that now…but that’s another rant for another time. Upon seeing the film, I understand why this film is such a critical darling…but if you’re what I’d call a ‘blue-collar kung fu aficionado’ where you just want to see wall-to-wall kung fu action, this is not the movie for you.
There’s this thing called ‘Oscar Bait’. You know what it means. [If not, there’s always the wiki. – Ed.] In fact, you can conjure up in your mind at least two or three films that likely meet the criteria: period drama, extravagant costumes, character may or may not have physical deformities or mental issues, usually released in the fall or early winter…so on and so forth. I propose a new term, ‘Critic Bait’…generally the same thing but on a smaller, more immediate scale. These are films that meet relatively the same criteria as ‘Oscar Bait’ but aren’t limited to an autumn release. These are films that are created so that high-brow or high-minded critics that are keen on reminding you that they’re better and more refined than you thanks to their cinema-snobbery can heap lavish praise on a film…sometimes in genres that they typically turn their noses up at.
Long ass introduction to what I thought about the film, huh?
The Assassin falls into this ‘Critic Bait’ category. The last kung fu film I can think of that fell into this category would be Ang Lee’s ‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon’, but where that film succeeded is where The Assassin fails. Lee’s film balanced the epic scope of a period piece set in China with a fair amount of kung fu action and set pieces. The Assassin, in contrast, ends up being a beautifully shot high-end department of tourism reel…with a few set pieces thrown in to remind you that, oh, yeah, this girl is a badass and lives up to the title of the film.
Well…kinda. See, the plot here is that this woman, Yinniang, was taken from her family at a very young age by a nun and trained to be a peerless assassin. You know, Sister Mary’s School for Ninjas…what do you mean you’ve never heard of it? Well, as it turns out, Yinniang kinda botched her most recent assignment, opting not to kill the target because said target’s infant son was in the room at the time. The nun, whom we’ll now call Sister Mary, is less than pleased at this display of mercy and/or emotion…so for Yinniang’s next assignment, she’s got to go back to her family and kill her cousin Tian Ji’an…who is now the ruler of Weibo province and way back in the day, had been betrothed to Yinniang.
Killing your cousin who was also your ex. Man…I think there are parts of Ohio where this very drama might be happening right now…
But no, in The Assassin, we’re set in seventh-century China…so it’s a period piece. BING! Go ahead and checkmark that box on your Oscar/Critic Bait scorecard. BING! Doomed romance! That one gets checked too. Let’s check that Rotten Tomatoes score here…80%. Yup, critics bit on hard for this bait! As you watch the film, it becomes apparent very early on that this is art-house kung fu. By that, I mean sure, there are set pieces here and there but generally the film focuses on scenery, a love story that isn’t necessarily all there and a glacial pace…only speeding up in the aforementioned set pieces. Now, I’ve already mentioned that the scenery shots are absolutely beautiful…second to none…downright gorgeous stuff…but as we get into the story itself…well…sigh. It’s like this, we take the core premise, stated above…highly trained killer woman has to kill her cousin/ex…then the film gets sidetracked as Yinniang’s father is assigned to accompany one of Tian Ji’an’s former advisers into exile…so she goes to watch after her father. At some point another Assassin is sent to deal with her…but you’re never sure as to who sent it…was it Tian Ji’an, because by that point she’s already tried to kill him once but couldn’t bring herself to do it? Or was it the Imperial Court? Or was it Sister Mary? You don’t know…she’s just there. There’s also another subplot where Tian Ji’an’s mistress is discovered to be pregnant…and that pisses off his wife…who then hires the Chinese equivalent of a voodoo priest to do that voodoo that he do. And Yinniang is there to stop the fog monster because…reasons…I guess. When we come to the end of the film, there’s a rather anticlimactic showdown between master and student wherein Yinniang defeats Sister Mary and chooses not to kill her cousin/ex…and then that’s it. With a narrative in this much disarray, clearly some scenes providing some connective tissue would’ve been nice…but no, that would’ve taken time away from the scenery or…and this one nearly made me blow my top…a scene where we see Tian Ji’an exit his room…walk down a path away from camera…turn behind the building so that we no longer see him (the image is still holding static, mind you)…and it stays this way for about a minute before we see him return, pass his room walking toward camera and then turn to go the other way. Yeah. Clearly that scene was vital to…fuck if I know. BING! Unnecessary static camera shot that provides something that only cinema-snobs understand and/or appreciate. Another checkmark.
Look, I’m not just being an asshole here, I’m pointing out these checkmarks to illustrate that this was set out to be a critical darling…and given that it competed at Cannes, taking home Best Director there, it achieved what it set out to do. But as any semblance to a kung fu film…The Assassin fails. It’s a beautiful film, but not really one I can recommend. I will say that if there’s a girl you’re trying to impress who is either a cinema-snob/art-house movie fan, then yeah, use The Assassin as a potential first step in luring her down from her high horse…or if you’ve got a friend with that kind of film sensibilities, maybe you can use this film as a ‘gateway drug’…so to speak. But if you’re looking for DVDs to inject some action into your Friday night drinking…The Assassin is probably one to avoid.