London Film Festival: The Assassin and The Witch

Two genre films that upend audience expectation catch our eye at BFI London Film Festival: Robert Eggers' period horror The Witch and The Assassin, from great Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien

Feature by Josh Slater-Willams | 16 Oct 2015
  • London Film Festival: The Assassin and The Witch

The Witch

The Witch (★★★★) has the on-screen subtitle of A New England Folktale, and its end credits posit that it’s inspired by folklore, fairy tales and journals from the time of its 1630s setting. First-time feature director Robert Eggers and his crew take a practically fetishistic route to evoking that time, incorporating period-accurate language, detail-perfect sets, hand-stitched costumes, and striking compositions heavily dependent on natural light.

Ostensibly the scary tale of an isolated family torn apart by the forces of darkness, running concurrently at all times with the black magic and shady goats is an affecting moral drama regarding the devastating roots that seep from seeds of distrust. Visible witchcraft could plausibly have been left out of the film and you’d still have a portrait of mass psychological breakdown that haunts in its own right. That this is all set just a couple of decades before the Salem witch trials lends a delicious subtext to proceedings, making it just as akin to the cinematic territory of The White Ribbon as it is The Shining.

The Assassin

The cinema of Hou Hsiao-hsien is that of a slow-burning heightening of the senses. Some of his best works over his four-decade career fiercely defy easy categorisation, nor do their narrative structures always make themselves perceptible and simple to follow from the very start; films like The Time to Live and the Time to Die change your previously perceived notions of cinematic textures and storytelling, making you work out how to watch them while you’re watching them. The results are often spectacular, sometimes mystifying. Sometimes it’s a combination of the two. Upon first viewing, The Assassin (★★★★) is a combination.

Set during the Tang Dynasty period of ninth century China, the film sees exiled female assassin (Shu Qi) navigate the conflicting commitments of terminating a tyrannical power and preserving the life of a loved one with ties to it. It’s perhaps the most abstract action film ever made, with a near-impenetrable plot for those not heavily studied up on Chinese history and Hou’s trademark rhythms being applied to the seemingly incompatible genre concerns of hacking and slashing. Its characters’ psychologies are conveyed not through words, but through their navigation of natural splendour (and the sights are gorgeous). It’s a confounding film, but in a spiritually rewarding way. Its intoxicating power coming from just how alien it feels. It takes you to the past, but it seems like another universe.

BFI London Film Festival runs until 18 Oct