The Assassin

Review by Violet Lucca @unbuttonmyeyes

Directed by

Hou Hsiao-Hsien

Starring

Chang Chen Shu Qi Tsumabuki Satoshi

Anticipation.

Adored by many when it screened in Cannes, but what do those guys know?

Enjoyment.

A breathtaking work of art which revolves around a haunting female lead.

In Retrospect.

The texture is the story.

Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s elegant martial arts tale is one the most beautiful films you’ll see all year.

There is no risk of overstating the alternating manic and woozy pleasure of The Assassin. Like the lavish textiles that help divide the rooms of its Tang Dynasty courts, Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s wuxia layers texture upon texture, masterfully obscuring detail to create a one of a kind cinematic experience. Turning Western and Eastern conventions of narrative structure and shot composition on their heads, it conjures feelings that won’t diminish with repeated viewings. There’s still plenty of clanging swords, doubles, double-crosses, supernatural conspiracies, and feet pattering across wooden roofs at night in the midst of Hou’s majestic formal play. (Plus: someone almost gets buried alive.)

There are two ways to enter The Assassin’s world: you could look up the 9th century short story upon which the film is based, or you could simply surrender to what’s playing out on the screen. To keep your options open, I won’t offer any straightforward plot summary (elsewhere, others have recited the plot, there’s even a handy flowchart). More than simply “spoiling” any plot twists, even a rough understanding of the story will shape how the film washes over you.

Hou takes his elliptical tendencies to the extreme visually and narratively, with brief, second-hand accounts sharing the most straightforward deaths or power plays (both familial and regal in nature). At other moments, story points – which feel more like clues – are presented in chronological order but without context, making them seem incongruous. Except, of course, that they’re not: this is an ultra-lean narrative with many strands, and any irrelevant moment, silent or otherwise, has been cut away. Even the discovery of a period faked with chicken blood turns out to be significant. Nothing exists only to “look pretty”, yet this is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful films you’ll see all year.

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The level of precision is even more mind-boggling considering that the director shot nearly 500,000 feet of 35mm film for this 90-minute work. Still, the tautness of The Assassin doesn’t come off as the achievement of clever editing alone; there are dozens of moments of languorous, low-angled shots, such as one following the movements of torch-carrying palace servants that slowly drifts downward towards some well water and lands on an ominous effigy.

Such moments are the most advanced choreography you’ll see in this wuxia – per Hou’s request, the actors didn’t rehearse the fights beforehand, so these brief, rapidly edited outbursts of energy preserve a feeling of spontaneity. Harking back to his 30 shots-only 1998 film, Flowers of Shanghai, Hou originally planned to shoot The Assassin in three-minute takes on a spring-wound Bolex, but scrapped the idea because his regular cinematographer, Mark Lee Ping Bin, “is not a young man anymore” and found composing shots through the camera’s viewfinder difficult.

The tension in these fights is derived not from elaborate wirework, but from the poise of the combatants involved in them. When not brandishing her short, wavy dagger, Shu Qi (who plays the titular assassin Nie Yinniang) confidently approaches her opponents without meeting their gaze, either looking past them, as if they don’t exist, or looking down at them out of distain, or to anticipate which way their feet will move.

When pitted against another female assassin clad in a mauve coat and golden mask in a forest of birch trees, Nie’s movements alternately harmonise and contrast with the peaceful wilderness around them. She stumbles one moment after dodging an unexpected thrust, then she walks away unperturbed and victorious. The low-key scuffle is broken up by a lengthy shot of the trees against the midday sky – from the perspective of neither character – which suggests a literal passage of time, but also something resembling a third-person narration of either character’s feelings in that particular moment.

Given little dialogue, Shu perfectly captures Nie’s moral and emotional ambiguity, taking her far from the “unrepentant badass” mould of most strong female characters. Without even turning the corners of her mouth, she manages to express intense regret, loss, and fury, sometimes all at once. Her mannerisms are no different from her fellow ladies of the court, yet she exudes an entirely different energy. Shu’s performance is the haunting centre of the film – for Nie often seems like a ghost reluctantly returned from the dead, silently drifting through rooms. She dances against the abyss in what is Hou’s most enigmatic film yet.

Published 21 Jan 2016

Anticipation.

Adored by many when it screened in Cannes, but what do those guys know?

Enjoyment.

A breathtaking work of art which revolves around a haunting female lead.

In Retrospect.

The texture is the story.

Read More

Drinking and disillusionment in Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Millennium Mambo

By Adam Cook

With The Assassin dropping into cinemas this week, Adam Cook revisits The Taiwanese director’s 2001 masterpiece.

Hou Hsiao-Hsien: ‘There were a lot of gangs where I grew up’

By Matt Thrift

Meet the Taiwanese master who makes gorgeous movies and home-made Samurai swords.

Discover this Taiwanese epic that brought kung fu to the art-house

By Anton Bitel

King Hu’s seminal ’70s wuxia is finally arriving on Blu-ray and DVD later this month.

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