Directed by: Hsiao-Hsien Hou.
Written by: Zhong Acheng & T'ien-wen Chu & Hsiao-Hsien Hou & Hai-Meng Hsieh based on the short story by Xing Pei.
Starring: Qi Shu (Nie Yinniang), Chen Chang (Tian Ji'an), Satoshi Tsumabuki (The Mirror Polisher), Shao-Huai Chang (Chiang Nu), Nikki Hsin-Ying Hsieh (Huji), , Ethan Juan (Xia Jing), Zhen Yu Lei (Tien Xing - Yinniang's Uncle), Fang Mei (Yinniang' Grandmother), Dahong Ni (Nie Feng), Jacques Picoux (Lady Tian's Teacher), Fang-yi Sheu (Princess Jiacheng / Princess-Nun Jiaxin), Mei Yong (Yinniang' Mother), Yun Zhou (Lady Tian).
One of my favorite Twitter accounts to follow is called “One Perfect Shot” which tweets out visually striking stills from movies that are often awe-inspiring. There may not be a frame in Hsiao-Hsein Hou’s The Assassin that could not be tweeted out my One Perfect Shot and look breathtaking – this is one of the most beautiful films of the year, with every shot precisely framed for maximum impact. If you’ve seen the trailer for the film, you would be forgiven for thinking that The Assassin is another Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – that is how they are marketing it – even if you know Hou’s previous films and therefore know that a wuxia film isn’t his normal thing. Then again, it wasn’t for Ang Lee before Crouching Tiger nor Zhang Yimou before Hero and House of Flying Daggers or Wong Kar Wai’s before The Grandmaster nor, to a lesser extent, Jia Zhang-ke’s before A Touch of Sin. Yet those films – some for Taiwan or Hong Kong or mainland China – they all put their stamp on the genre. You could argue that Hou has done the same thing with The Assassin – just in a more extreme case. If you’ve seen the preview, you’ve seen most of the martial arts action in the movie – which is largely made up of large still shots, and a lot of palace intrigue, and not a lot of fighting. It will bore many looking for something more action oriented – but for those who get on the film’s wavelength, it is breathtaking.
The plot of The Assassin is, to be honest, kind of confusing. I don’t think this is because of anything wrong that Hou – or his co-screenwriters – did – but rather, it’s more because there is quite a lot going on in it, and the characters are not the type to stop and explain it to the audience. To boil it down to its essentials, it is about a woman – Yinniang (Hou regular Qi Shu) who was once supposed to marry Tian Ji’an (Chen Chang) – her cousin – in a move that would solidify power and bring peace in Tang dynasty (I think) era China – more than a few hundred years ago. But Tian married someone else instead, and Yinniang has spent her formative years being trained by a nun to be an assassin. She has become the best there is – she moves silently, and fights with deadly precision – one of the reasons the fights in the film don’t last long is because she is effective. Yet, she still has a heart – and that gets in her way in terms of doing her job – first as she fails to kill a local Governor – because his son is in the room with him – and later when she cannot bring herself to kill Tian. But why can’t she? Hou doesn’t give Yinniang any speeches to explain herself – she barely speaks at all – and he also doesn’t really like close-ups either – we often see his characters in long shots, that go on longer than we are used to, and we have to interpret what they think by the subtlest of gestures. So yes, it is strange to see Hou make a wuxia film – but he has still very much made a Hou film as well.
Hou’s films are not for everyone – they move slowly, and you have to pay close attention, or you’re going to get lost - and even then you still may – but getting lost in a Hou film is a pleasant experience. I have to admit, that he’s a filmmaker I really do need to delve deeper into – but the pace of his films always holds me back a little bit. There is a fine line between beautifully slow and dull, and Hou flirts with that at times –even a few (but not) many moments in The Assassin are like that. But just when the film starts to drift, he comes up with another stunning image – something else to keep you enthralled. I know I didn’t always understand what was happening in The Assassin – but I never really cared.
What’s more, I find it fascinating to keep coming back to this genre through the eyes of very different auteur filmmakers. While many superhero fans claim that the movie are just the modern version of the Western – good vs. evil, many times a year, the truth is that there isn’t much a difference between most superhero movies – the way there is between the Westerns of Ford, Leone, Peckinpah, Eastwood, Hawkes, etc. On its surface, the wuxia genre could be considered the same for Chinese audiences – and in the hands of Ang Lee, Wong Kar Wai, Zhang Yimou and now Hou Hsien-Hsiao – we are getting vastly different interpretations. That’s exciting to me. The Assassin is one of the most beautiful films of the year – and a part of an exciting movement in film – where modern masters are looking back at their roots, and coming up with something wholly unique.