The Assassin is the first foray, by the legendary Taiwanese art-film director Hou Hsiao-Hsien (Millennium Mambo, Three Times, Café Lumière, Flight of the Red Balloon) into the “Wuxia” (aka “martial hero”) genre, conceived in the Far East by China and popularized globally by films like Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Zhang Yimou’s Hero. And yet the film almost serves as an antithetical rebuttal to the genre. The Assassin achieves the ethereal and sought after cinematic sublime that very few filmmakers are capable reaching, but it doesn’t make much traditional sense. Hou could make a great martial arts epic if he wanted to, but he’s after more rarefied game in this remarkable and challenging film. Shu Qi (The Transporter) plays a mysterious female assassin whose heart and soul gets in the way of her deadly art. Her journey is instead used by Hou to directly confront Taiwanese and Chinese myth, landscape, and genre conventions head-on. It has few and fleeting bursts of lightning-fast swordplay and balletic combat that interrupt long, still stretches of misty moonlit landscapes and follow a pure literary style more interested in soul-searching and interpersonal drama amid political maneuvering. The detailed period costumes and art direction make the film extraordinarily beautiful to watch (it’s one of the most gorgeous films I’ve ever seen), but the refinement may weigh against it for fans hungering after spectacular kung fu. The plot and characters are also hard to follow due to the substantially opaque narrative ambiguity from which to reap the riches off like a more poetically-inclined mind. The Assassin is a martial arts movie for philosophers, scholars, poets, painters, sculptors, artists, gourmands, and other hard-core sensualists. Fans of martial arts movies will probably hate it through no fault of their own. The Assasin is for those who wish to expand their movie palette beyond traditional “entertainment.”
It is difficult to suss out what is actually happening in the movie when it begins cold. Over time you’ll come to see that this is set during the ninth-century Tang dynasty in China’s Weibo province. The province is on the verge of rebellion due to the crumbling central authority. The titular assassin Yinniang (Shu Qi) is dispatched to kill provincial governor Lord Tian (Chang Chen) at the behest of her master, the mysterious princess nun (Sheu Fang-yi) only to find herself in a perverse paradox: she has been raised and trained to kill yet she refuses to give in to her impulse. This is a movie where the “martial hero” stops herself from actualizing: it’s an inaction film. And in being so it breaks conventions associated with the archetype and genre for the movie that argues that inaction is a much more profound actionable choice in a world where force is law. The straightforward plotting still seems like a confusing tangle, simply because the court intrigue unfolds as it plausibly would be in real life in order to reveal the complex channels of communication at work. A sense of verisimilitude or “authenticity” is favored over efficiency. Dialogue plays the crucial role of not only advancing the drama but fleshing out context: Hou understands the most piercing way for us to feel the past bearing down on the present is to have a character simply tell their story and watch their expressions and body language while reading cinematic sensory storytelling cues.
In terms of “action” storytelling, the expertly choreographed armed combat is never treated as an end in itself, even as the scenes are shown as objects of contemplation and sometimes excitement, the violence itself never becomes pleasurable. The “wuxia” or “martial hero” is forged by necessity and purged of all excess and spectacle, in the process achieving clarity of vision that is not just aesthetic but implicitly moral. The film resists the anachronistic impulse to turn Yinniang into some sort of kickass avenger: When this assassin kills, she goes about it with matter-of-fact precision and practiced efficiency, never lingering or wasting a breath or move. What little violence is in the film erupts abruptly out of the blue and almost at the corner of the movie’s eye before ending just as abuptly, much the way real-world mayhem does. When it comes to the rest of the film you will find a meditative state of slow-moving rapture.
Hou’s filmmaking collaborators fill the holes with a sound and visual experience that takes the place of where conventional storytelling would be. Cinematographer Lee Ping Bin does things with 35mm photography, cinematography, mis-en-scene and blocking that you wouldn’t think possible, capturing the Wudang Mountains of China’s Hubei Province in mist-laden images that seem to come down to lens from the dawn of time itself. One surprise is that Hou is not shooting in anything resembling widescreen, but a modest, nearly square format that limits the number of actors who can fit into the frame. It’s a gamble that pays off in extra vertical space, which lets him exploit soulful natural locations and create images that pleasurably recall Chinese period paintings. The production design and costumes by Huang Wen-Ying strike that balance of being uncannily historical while possessing vibrant operatic opulence. Lim Giong’s music, heavy on the court drums, is hypnotic when it plays (much of the film is cloaked in silence and ambience). There are shots in this movie that will permanently burn themselves onto your retinas: Yinniang behind a series of veils, horsemen with torches on an endless plain, a ballet of death on a rooftop. Hou and his collaborators don’t believe in “explaining” things, and more often than not the film insists on de-centering the imagery away from the classical balance that makes for easy “reading” so much as “hypothesizing.” The sheer depth of its formal artistry implicitly grasps the expressive power of stillness and reserve, the ways in which silence can build tension and heighten interest and control. If a movie like Mad Max: Fury Road was cinema as kinetic propulsion, The Assassin is cinema as quiet contemplation.
The Assassin has a mythic allure that gives the film the dramatic coloration of a fantasy or folk tale. Ultimately it’s about the internal struggle between the murderous or merciful. The film comes down on the idea that sometimes indecision, far from branding someone as weak, can be a mark of power and agency. It’s very much of a piece with some eastern philosophies that in a world, where individual lives are so cruelly limited by social circumstances and the unpredictable fluctuations of history, the truly great and rare figures are the ones who are in full command of their own destiny. Hou’s style of weaving this tapestry is not for everyone. However if you think it’s for you — if you believe that beauty is its own reward — find the biggest canvas on which to behold this movie that you possibly can. It’s the blockbuster for hardcore aesthetes.