I first reviewed Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin back in October when it was a part of the New York Film Festival. At the time, I praised it for its visual audacity and narrative simplicity all the while wondering who exactly the audience was for it. Now, following a surge of year end awards and lists across any and all facets of cinema writing, blogging and conversing, it is clear that Hou’s film made a big splash with tastemakers. But, as I feared, it didn’t find the audience it deserved to find theatrically. Well Go USA have brought it to home video domestically and hopefully this is where it garners the fandom it should have gotten months ago. If you want to read my thoughts on the film from October, you can do so here.
I’m not going to review the film again, but I have some comments from my various re-watches over the past few months. I saw it once more theatrically and once via Well Go’s Blu-ray release. Both times I was as captivated as I was in the auditorium at Lincoln Center last October, yet now I was able to let the narrative exist as an aside and let each precise element wash over me. A lot is being said for the nature photography of The Revenant with its strict use of natural light and sweeping vistas, but The Assassin captures the world in a far more aesthetically pleasing and, perhaps, organic manner. The images here are lush, inviting and mesmerizing in a way that we don’t typically associate with genre cinema. Hou’s film transgresses the wuxia genre and becomes something of a personal experience for the viewer – at least for me, anyway – that puts it right up there with other masterworks like A Touch of Zen and Dragon Inn, but invites comparisons to work that is even more contemplative and austere. The action is sparse and brutal but has even more of an impact at home where everything feels more intimate and confrontational.
I’m still not entirely sure who the audience for The Assassin is, but it exists and it will be far more accessible now than it was in its limited US theatrical run. I was really hoping for it to earn its way into the Best Foreign Film category at the Oscars if only to find viewers that way, but that was apparently not meant to be. And what a mistake that was. Hou’s film is elegant, challenging and unique in a way that we seldom see anymore in general, let alone in the martial arts genre. If that isn’t something you’re looking for – something that you need – well, there’s a lot of other films out there for you.
Well Go have brought The Assassin to Blu-ray domestically and it looks just as good as I’d hoped it would. Both of the times that I saw it theatrically, there were aspect ratio hurdles with theater tech staff apparently not understanding that Hou used various aspect ratios for the film, and to great effect at that. Naturally, that’s not an issue with the Blu-ray, with all ratios presented properly. This was shot on 35mm and every frame is rather stunning to look at. From the black and white opening sequence, to the nightime sequences lit by flame to the vibrant colors of flowers. It’s all beautiful and Well Go’s transfer does it justice. In all honesty, this disc looks better than the DCP that I saw projected. It’s that good. Audio is in DTS HD MA 5.1 and it’s an organically bombastic track with dialogue delivered clearly and music coming in as thunderous as it should, when it should. There is no dub track included, so if that’s a thing that you’re looking for, look elsewhere.
Unfortunately, there’s not much in the way of supplements here. I was really hoping for a commentary or some sort of lengthy video feature but what we get is solid albeit little. There are four behind the scenes featurettes: “The Actors: No Rehearsals,” “The Fights Between Masters,” “Nie Yinniang,” and “A Time Machine to the Tang Dynasty.” Together they all total about thirteen minutes, which isn’t much. There’s some good information in there and every bit of video content is welcome but it’s all over way too fast. There’s also a theatrical trailer.
I’m very happy to have The Assassin now available on home video in the US. Not just so that I can revisit it whenever I want but so that others can discover it for the first time. It’s a special piece of cinema that can offer infinite rewards to patient viewers that are looking for something different and Well Go’s Blu-ray offers praise worthy A/V presentation. There could have been more offered for special features, but I’m happy to have what there is. Highly Recommended.