Review: The Assassin (Nie yi niang)

The Assassin, directed by Taiwanese director Hou Hsia-Hsien was an official selection at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival main competition section and won a Best Director award for Hsiao-Hsien. It is well-directed, acted, and beautifully shot and stars Qi Shu (The Transporter), Chen Chang (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), and Satoshi Tsumabuki.


The story is set during the Tang Dynasty in 9th century China. Nie Yinniang (Shu), the assassin, returns home after being exiled at the age of ten into the service and tutelage of a Taoist nun princess, Jiaxin (Fang-Yi Sheu – she also plays her twin sister Princess Jiacheng). During her time with the nun she is trained as a killer. Her master, the nun, sends her to kill corrupt government officials, but during one such mission she shows mercy and does not kill someone during her assignment.

To punish her, Jiaxin sends her to the Weibo province in northern China on a very difficult assignment to test her commitment. Nie is pitted against her cousin Tian Ji’an (Chang), the military governor of the province and her once betrothed – who coincidentally is married to another for political reasons.

Qi Shu as Nie Yinniang the Assassin

For those of you whose idea of this type of Asian cinema is clouded by the ‘exploitation era’ (of the 1970s and 1980s) you may have a clouded idea of what to expect from a film entitled “The Assassin.” If you go into this film prepared to see lots of gratuitous violence, blood, and gore you will be disappointed. This film is more along the lines of Crouching Tiger, in that it has a lot of symbolism. Don’t let the title, and your thirst for bloody scenes, mislead you or pollute your experience of the film.

The first thing that you notice about it is how striking the setting is – even in black and white, as the initial scenes are presented. It opens with Nie Yinniang is the middle of an assignment to kill a corrupt leader. You don’t see her so much as you feel her presence. She moves within her environment with such ease and grace. She barely disturbs the serene setting of the woods. She is moves through the space like a ghost.

When the film transitions into color the story comes alive and signifies “the Assassin’s” shifting from seeing things in black in white to color. Some will only see the change to color as a shift from past to present, and it is, but there is definitely more to it.

As Nie endeavors to complete her mission we see her point of view of her duty shift. She realizes that life is not played out, lived, in rights and wrongs and black and white, but it is in many shades of gray and color. And, sometimes circumstances and experiences influence the decisions we make – compromises and concessions must be made for the greater good.

Tian Ji'an
Hou Hsiao-Hsien as Tian Ji’an the military governor.

When the Assassin returns to the Weibo province she visits with her family. Her aunt tells her the story of the twin princesses and their journey to the region. It is evident that with that interaction Nie becomes conflicted about her mission. She pays a visit to her cousin, her once betrothed, to let him know of her intention to kill him.

At the same time Tian Ji’an has a complicated life. He is in a loveless marriage; he has three male heirs that he must raise and protect; and he has a pregnant concubine that his wife wants to see dead. He must also contend with the issue of keeping the peace in his province – and with the return of his cousin there is a greater concern for his own life.

Jiaxin and Nie

When Nie Yinniang goes to assassinate Tian she cannot bring herself to do it in the presence of his son. She will not kill him in front of his child. This is a line that she learns she will not cross. Her master is watching her all the time – testing her. Nie fails the test as far as Jiaxin is concerned which displeases her greatly. She confronts her charge and asks for an explanation. When Nie tells her she could not complete her task because of the presence of his child and that they should wait until a more opportune time she is chastised. The nun only sees things in black and white. There is no room for sentimentality. Nei was given an assignment and she did not complete it.

There are many layers to the story which adds texture and depth to this story. It moves slowly but with purpose. In the end the story is less about assassination and more about the complexities of life and ability for one to grow. Perhaps this film is really a coming of age story of the assassin and her realization that the beliefs and ideals that she was brought up with are not they only lens to peer through. She is experiencing her “adolescence.”

This film is worth seeing for the aesthetics alone. Take a chance on this rich story.

Nie Nianning in the woods.

Khuwailah Beyah
Khuwailah Beyah
Khuwailah "Cookie" Beyah hails from North Carolina. She is a pop culture nut and loves all things Nathan Fillion. Ms. Beyah has a passion for the macabre and the horror genre. She serves on the "Nevermore Film Festival" selection committee in Durham, NC and attends several comic and horror conventions each year. She holds an MA from Duke University, but is a dyed in the wool North Carolina Tar Heel fan! She also enjoys writing and reading creative non-fiction.