I wrote the following capsule review of The Assassin for Time Out Chicago. It should appear there in truncated form at some point this week.
The Chicago International Film Festival continues through Thursday, October 29th. Your best bet for the second week is The Assassin by Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-Hsien.
The best film playing this year’s Chicago International Film Festival, and arguably the best film to play anywhere in Chicago in 2015 period, is The Assassin, the latest masterpiece from Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien (A City of Sadness). Although the film, starring the gorgeous and charismatic Shu Qi (The Transporter), has been marketed as a martial-arts extravaganza a la Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, it can more accurately be described as a deliberately paced character study that takes place in 9th century China where the protagonist happens to be a professional killer. Nie Yin-Niang (Shu) is a young woman who has been trained from childhood to assassinate rogue politicians by a “nun princess.” When the film begins, Nie’s moral conscience prevents her from completing a job. As punishment, she is ordered to assassinate her cousin, the governor of Weibo province (Chang Chen), to whom she was once betrothed.
Some critics have complained that the plot is overly complicated. In actuality, it’s a simple plot that is told in an oblique way (due to Hou’s admirable indifference towards conventional narrative exposition). The substance of the film is to be found in the God-level mise-en-scene — where characters converse on fog-enshrouded mountaintops and behind the billowing silk curtains of exquisite, candle-lit interiors. This amazing recreation of the crumbling Tang Dynasty proves to be the most ideal backdrop imaginable for what Hou posits as Nie’s universal and timeless dilemma: should she obey her sense of professional duty or the desires of her heart? The result is a meditation on violence and morality that would make an excellent double bill with Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven; Nie chooses her destiny and then, like a character from a folk tale, vanishes back into the pages of history. Unmissable.
The Assassin will screen on 10/21 and 10/23. Click here for tickets and showtimes.