Cast: Shu Qi, Chang Chen, Zhou Yun, Satoshi Tsumabuki
Director: Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
By turns ravishing and befuddling, Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien's take on the popular Chinese wuxia genre; known for tales of lower class warriors fighting for codes of honor and chivalry, is really a film about the ways in which the moving image can draw us into a haze of sensory awe. Even though there's a central narrative hook in The Assassin concerning a martial artist sent to kill a man with whom she was once engaged, Hou deliberately delays gratification for what we think this type of story requires. From the outset, we know that the killer in question, Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), is the best in the business, but the real question hovering over the film is whether or not she will actually murder Tian Ji'an (Chang Chen), the cousin she was supposed to marry as a child. Despite Yinniang's nearly silent skills as an assassin, the opening sequence in which she spares one of her targets because he's cradling his young son, reveals that things can be more complicated on an emotional and psychological level.
Even referring to emotional psychology in this context is foolish, though, since The Assassin is one of the least emotional films one will likely see all year. Yinniang rarely, if ever, speaks, stalking hallways and jumping from rooftops with dexterous agility, and there are no attempts at investigating her interior life. Aside from muted facial expressions and a commanding physical presence, Yinniang is a cipher, and purposefully so. In terms of story, this is a tale in which the particulars of the skeletal narrative, not to mention the various character's relationships with one another, are beyond cryptic. Still, if one can get past the fact that Hou is working almost exclusively on the level of mood and atmosphere rather than through narrative constraints, then the sheer visual splendor on display should be enough. In fact, the look of the film is enough, and that it looks the way it does; filmed mostly in the Academy boxy ratio with intoxicating bursts of color backed by gorgeously imposing landscapes, is alone worthy of praise. In reality, Hou sticks very close to the wuxia formula here; a central protagonist raised to be a killer since childhood given a very straightforward task that challenges notions of honor and responsibility, but seems generally uninterested in giving audiences anything resembling traditional catharsis.
Another stable of wuxia, of course, are the martial arts fighting sequences, and there are some of those here too, but not exactly in the way one expects. Like everything else about The Assassin, the set-pieces aren't really set-pieces, but rather, quick bursts of violence lasting only a few minutes at a time. They are well choreographed; with wire-assisted leaping, clanging blades, and heightened sound design, but Hou often cuts away just as the action seems to be picking up. On one occasion, he actually shots an entire sword fight between Yinniang and some adversaries from across a lake so that the particulars of the battle are almost completely obscured. Additionally, though the film is set sometime in the ninth-century during the Tang dynasty, it feels like it exists out of time, as if we are witnessing a howling dream where the wind dances in between curtains and the rumbling fog crawls its way up mountains like a ghost. It's a cinematic experience that speaks to the most elemental of senses; with long moments of stillness becoming almost unnerving in their inertia. Scenes of lords and masters sitting around discussing strategy, meanwhile, are drained of any conceivable energy or pathos, almost as if the people are merely backdrops to the sound of the wind and martial drums pounding in a distant location.
This kind of directorial approach could very easily be labeled boring or flat, but there moments where the primeval expanse of the visuals are almost too painterly to be believed, as if Hou is supernaturally summoning the elements to obey his every command. If anything, this aesthetic allows the audience to either become increasingly agonized by the fact that nothing is apparently happening, or be moved that everything is happening all at once. It's that kind of film; puzzling, enigmatic, gorgeous, and unbelievably slow, proving that even archaic genres can be told from bold perspectives, and that compositions can become something more powerful than simply narrative beats in a well-trodden story. This is a picture that deserves to be marveled at, pondered over, and quite possibly, not fully understood.