December 4, 2015 -- This is a movie with some beautiful scenery, some martial arts and some magic, but there are parts of the film whose meaning escaped me. Perhaps with several viewings, and review of the Chinese story of Nie Yinniang, upon which this film is loosely based, I could puzzle it out.
The part of the story I could grasp was that the assassin, Nie Yinniang, (played by Shu Qi) is told by her master, Taoist nun Jiaxin (Fang-Yi Sheu, who also plays twin sister Princess Jiacheng, according to Wikipedia) to kill a corrupt ruler, Yinniang doesn't have the heart to kill him when she finds the ruler peacefully holding his young son in his arms.
As punishment for her failure to kill the ruler, Jiaxin sends Yinniang out to kill her cousin, Tian Ji'an (Chang Chen) a man she was once betrothed to, but she doesn't kill him, either. In fact, Yinniang seems to do pretty much whatever she wants. She is such a master of martial arts that she can defeat anyone foolish enough to fight her and can slip into and out of any room or building undetected. She takes the side of Tian Ji'an and seems to be doing a lot to protect his interests.
The movie opens in black and white, shows an assassination, then switches to color (mostly seen in an aspect ratio similar to the old “Academy Standard” or old standard TV format, widely used before movies went to widescreen formats decades ago) showing some amazing scenery. In one memorable scene, Jiaxin stands on the edge of a cliff, overlooking a big valley, while Yinniang tells her that she has decided not to kill Tian Ji'an. While they are talking, a cloud, or fog rolls in and obscures the entire valley, leaving only the two women visible. It is a one-of-a-kind, amazing scene. There is some beautiful scenery in the film, lensed by Ping Bin Lee, (AKA Mark Lee Ping Bin of “In the Mood for Love”).
The politics, involving the surrounding provinces and the Eighth Century Tang Dynasty, seems very complex. There are long, seemingly pointless, discussions in the film between Tian Ji'an (military governor of the Weibo province in northern China) and his advisors about political and military strategies. These strategy sessions involve not only relations with nearby provinces, but with the central Tang Dynasty rulers (the Dynasty is very weak at this historical time, tempting some of the provinces to militarily expand their territories). At one point, Tian Ji'an becomes very angry with one of his advisors and exiles him. This sets up one of the film's main action scenes.
For some unexplained reason, some faceless group wants to bury this exiled advisor alive, so they send warriors to attack the group accompanying the advisor on his journey. The warriors overpower the travelers, grab the poor advisor, and start burying him alive. Some guy, armed only with a stick, overhears the battle from a nearby stream and comes running in to intervene. He is aided by Yinniang, who appears out of nowhere to help defeat the attackers. Later, Yinniang and the stick guy (at least I think it is the stick guy) along with some other people, ride off into the sunset to the sound of, now get this, something that sounds exactly like Scottish bagpipe music. I don't know what that means, but it is a nice scene.
There is a whole other subplot involving a pregnant concubine and those who are threatened by the unborn child (presumably Tian Ji'an fathered the child) I think. There is a magician with a fake beard who uses something like Chinese voodoo to kill people, who might be working for Tian Ji'an's wife (who might be trying to preserve her own power and the legacy of her children by having the pregnant concubine murdered). There is another scene with people fighting in the woods. The next camera shot of this same fight is so far away you can barely see the battle. This fighting is cut in, and out, of the film, with no context, no explanation of who is fighting or why. The fight scenes in the film, by the way, are not particularly well done, by movie martial arts standards.
Then there is a fight scene between Yinniang and some chick in a beautiful golden mask. They fight for a while, then just quit fighting and walk away from each other without saying a word. Later, the mask is shown in pieces on the ground. What was that all about? Doing some research online, some say the identity of the masked woman (said to be Tian Ji'an's wife) is revealed in at least one earlier version of the film script, but this revealing scene was cut out of the film, in favor of a lingering shot of some goats, I guess. No wonder this film is a puzzle to many viewers.
I could not figure out the politics of what is going on in this movie, who some of these characters are and how they relate to one another and what their motives are. This could be due to the way the film was cut. It seemed to me that Yinniang, rather than being a ruthless assassin, is the moral center of the film. She seems to be trying to do the right thing, but she is regarded as something of an outlaw for her troubles.
I've seen my share of Chinese films, and while the Chinese culture and customs are foreign to the Western mind, I've always been able to make sense of those other films. This one is inscrutable. Without knowing the spoken language (Mandarin) and the story of Nie Yinniang (and without seeing the film several times, or having access to a sensible version of the script) there is just too much of this film that didn't make sense to me. Those jump cuts between seemingly unrelated scenes didn't help me, either, or the revealing details that were seemingly omitted from this cut of the film. This film rates a C.
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