Published on November 12th, 2015 | by Nathan Raine0
We take a look at The Assassin, from film from a master Taiwanese filmmaker that is a more quiet wuxia movie than some would expect.
It’s been eight years since the last feature from Taiwanese master filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien. His work, which spans more than three decades, is a catalog of re-imagined histories, reserved pastel melodramas, and a unique, patient visual finesse. Although Hou has long been a force on the international festival circuit, snatching up awards at some of the most esteemed festivals (Berlin, Venice, Locarno, and most recently, Cannes) the 68-year-old director remains somewhat of an unknown to North American audiences. His latest work, The Assassin should hopefully amend that.
Don’t be mislead by that title, though. In case that short introduction to Hou wasn’t warning enough: this ain’t going to be no ultra-violent, blood-splattered kung-fu orgasm for the attention-impaired. Hou doesn’t make your usual Hollywood hitman movies. I doubt he’s even seen any of them.
The Assassin takes place in 9th century China, where Nie Yinniang (played by Hou regular, Shu Qi) was taken from her family as a child and trained by some kind of nun-princess to become a political assassin. Many years later, now a perfect and highly tuned instrument of killing, Yinniang is assigned to kill a provincial governor. But, she abandons her mission when she finds the man with his young child. This marks one of Hou’s major contemplations in the film — duty versus compassion. Her failed hit angers the nun-princess, who sends Yinniang to execute her own cousin, Tian.
The story, though, is nearly impossible to follow (and the least interesting component of the film). Not for any narrative complexity or non-linear structure, but rather because of its passive nature. The film is so precise in its aesthetic refinement, every frame is oozing with meticulous detail that Hou allows his audience to linger on, that the story, simply, seems to drift along on the periphery.
It quickly becomes apparent that Hou appraises the merits of the wuxia genre much differently than any of his contemporaries. To put plainly, entertainment is of no consequential value. Fans of the genre, or marital arts, or sword-clanging in general, might quickly find themselves frustrated with The Assassin. The film is decidedly slow. In Hou’s world, be it story, character, or camera, things move only when absolutely necessary. There are no blood-lusting payoffs, and in fact, many of the intended duels cut away before we see any action. The few bursts of violence are sudden, short, yet almost serene. Hou harmonizes the action scenes with nature — cutting to shots of falling leaves rather than continued violence. It also seems like a direct inversion of a conventional hitman film; he uses long takes and visual elegance to tell his story. The principle character is not some cool, bloody-thirsty hitman, but a woman marred by isolation and compassion.
The conflict in the film takes place not between any two characters but an internal conflict on whether or not to carry out a task — Yinniang’s choice between compassion and duty. Hou is nothing if not modest in his depiction of emotion, and resists showing it explicitly in favour of a subdued hint at it. Each scene seems to pair opposing perspectives and multiple points of view, and Hou makes his viewer subtly aware of these shifting perspectives through his camera. A conversation is shot from behind a billowing, transparent curtain, a candle and the wind constantly changing its shape and clarity. Several of these scenes end revealing Yinniang watching from the shadows, making us aware not only of her voyeurism, but our own.
The Assassin is unhurried, even moving at an excruciatingly slow pace at times. But it’s also meticulously well-crafted and beautifully staged. And that languid pace allows us to get lost in Hou’s world for a while, even if we’re aware of every ticking second. The orchestras of sound, the overwhelming costume and production design, the careful camera movement and rich colours, and the ballet of martial artistry create a feeling more familiar with one you’d find at an art gallery than the cineplex. Hou is nothing short of visionary with his aesthetics, and in these rigorously composed moments, the film unfolding like a sequence of paintings, its difficult not to get entranced in this world.