(Dir. Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan/China, 2015)
An eight-year silence is quite long for a filmmaker who hasn’t gone more than four without releasing a new film over the past three decades. And, with an oeuvre that boasts such titles as A Time to Live, a Time to Die, A City of Sadness, The Puppetmaster, Flowers of Shanghai, and Flight of the Red Balloon, adoring audiences might forgive the man if his glory days are a thing of the past. Over the past thirty years, master of the medium Hou Hsiao-hsien has delivered poignant coming-of-age dramas, crafted compelling historical sagas chronicling Taiwan’s rich recent history, allowed his formalist aesthetic to steadily evolve, and documented modern urban malaise while offering a heartwarming antidote. Now, after over thirty years of work, he turns to one of the world’s oldest genres of fiction: the Chinese wuxia, more commonly referred to as a sub-category of martial arts stories in the West. His latest, the long-gestating The Assassin, is an exercise in genre filmmaking – which on the surface does seem unusual considering Hou’s status as an art film festival staple – yet fortunately affirms that this artist remains one of the world’s greatest living filmmakers. To this ardent fan’s delight, The Assassin is one of his finest yet.
There are famous filmmakers who built their careers on translating wuxia from page to screen – King Hu and Chang Cheh – and those who have dabbled in the genre once or twice – Wong Kar-wai, Ang Lee, and Zhang Yimou. And, while the films of the former are typically held in higher regard – The One-Armed Swordsman, Dragon Gate Inn, A Touch of Zen – the works of the latter three are probably better known today. There’s no denying the impact of Lee’s Oscar-winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Zhang’s equally popular Hero, but Hou’s inspiration here runs deeper than wuxia-flavored films arguably marketed for Western consumption. (This is not to suggest either is therefore a poor film; Lee’s crowd-pleaser still holds up and Zhang’s is at least pretty to look at.) Instead, Hou draws from the genre’s literary roots adapting an early short story about a princess turned assassin for his passion project, a film the director claims he’s wanted to make since the beginning of his career. Not surprisingly, The Assassin is more than just a worthy entry in the history of cinematic wuxia; it represents another leap forward in its creator’s art and furthers the overarching optimism new to his cinema as of his last feature Flight of the Red Balloon.
It goes without saying at this point that Hou’s cinema is demanding. It demands that his viewer watch closely and carefully, not only to bask in the beauty of the filmmaker’s rigorous aesthetic – few filmmakers today match his sheer mastery of the craft, an unrivaled attention to detail and an apparent sixth sense with regards to staging and camera placement – but also to ascertain what exactly transpires over the course of the film. The Assassin’s narrative is deliberately obscure, but never frustratingly so. It’s more a puzzle to be solved with details of family relations and character motivations revealed through dialogue or inference. Hou has famously wielded this form of storytelling before – to this writer, A City of Sadness remains the pinnacle of cinematic elliptical narration – but applied to the wuxia genre, it’s unexpectedly captivating. The opaque narrative serves to underscore the veiled thoughts, emotions, and motives of the film’s stoic central figure. Hou, then, has perhaps created one of the screen’s finest lone warriors in recent memory. Shu Qi’s titular killer is at first impenetrable to the audience, but only after careful observation do we discover what drives her to kill and ultimately what moves her to spare life. The result is an affecting portrait of an isolated figure at the crossroads of vengeance and heroics.
It’s no surprise that the bulk of the narrative concerns a web of complicated family ties. The story wrestles with the deadly Nie Yinniang’s duty to her family as much, if not more so than, her duty to her mission. That mission – to return to her home province to assassinate a hot-tempered local ruler – sets the film in motion. The ruler in question, however, happens to be Yinniang’s cousin Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen) to whom she was once betrothed. In a stunning black and white prelude, we learn that this assignment serves as a punishment from her ruthless master Jiaxin (Fang-Yi Sheu) for failing to eliminate another official in front of his son. “I couldn’t bring myself to do it,” she confesses, bent before her master. The severe consequences for her merciful actions lead her to the house of her childhood and the pervading uncertainty of whether or not she will fulfill her mission.
The majority of the film takes place here in the province of Weibo as Yinniang contemplates her past and permanently altering her family’s future. Throughout, we discover a haunting connection between Yinniang and her deceased aunt who was the mother of her cousin and twin sister to her master, a strained relationship between the woman and her disapproving father, residual feelings between cousins once betrothed, and a love triangle between Tian Ji’an, his wife from a neighboring clan, and his mistress that not only causes tension in their home but between clans that endangers Yinniang’s banished uncle. Each of these various subplots orbits around the film’s central narrative core adding intrigue and strengthening Hou’s picture of life in 8th century China under the Tang Dynasty. The makings of high melodrama in another filmmaker’s hands become yet another opportunity for Hou to flex his self-proclaimed un-Hollywoodesque style of storytelling. Moments of narrative revelation are visual wonders in The Assassin – a sudden switch in aspect ratio and film stock to signify a character’s memory, a miraculously captured meteorological phenomenon of swirling fog that corresponds to our protagonist’s inner turmoil, a duplicitous character’s identity revealed after the forced removal of her mask, a late-film fantastical turn that symbolizes a fateful clash of clans.
In the film’s best scene, Hou invites us into a private rendezvous between Tian Ji’an and his mistress Huji (Hsieh Hsin-Ying) as much of his and Yinniang’s shared past is revealed in dialogue. The frame flickers with glowing candlelight as a thin veil billows across the screen with the wind. Hou cuts to Yinniang lurking in the shrouds, framed by swaying curtains. The scene is intoxicating and distractingly beautiful with the room bathed in a hazy color palette of deep red and glimmering gold. This short segment rivals anything in his dazzling Flowers of Shanghai. (It should be mentioned that this film marks some of DP Mark Lee Ping Bin’s very best work.) It’s only upon a second viewing that one might realize the scene’s narrative significance. Likewise, much has been made – and rightfully so – of The Assassin’s fight sequences. Expertly choreographed swordplay is a hallmark of wuxia films, and Hou’s film is no exception. It may be short on prolonged action, but its fights are undoubtedly exhilarating. Almost every one of them occurs unexpectedly, juxtaposed with sequences of tranquility or languid pacing. These bursts of dueling foes feature unprecedented cutting within a scene and rapid-fire editing, a move Hou claims was pragmatic given the lack of martial arts skills of his performers. Either way, the sequences are incredible and unlike anything else in his body of work thus far.
To catch every detail of Hou’s meticulously designed set pieces, gorgeously shot scenery, or his intricately woven story, the film demands repeat viewings. I suspect it’s a work that grows richer with each subsequent viewing, more than likely a future classic of the genre and favorite of his canon. If its stunning imagery and engrossing narrative weren’t enough, Hou’s film transcends the very genre trappings it channels in its protagonist’s late-film decision to spare her cousin’s life. In the beginning, she confessed that she couldn’t bring herself to kill as if mercy was a sin, but in the end she defiantly claims, “I chose not to,” and turns her back on her former master. She returns to a village on the outskirts of Weibo and fulfills a promise to escort two travelers to a far-off province. The assassin has become a guardian. Violence bows to mercy, and a trained killer uses her unmatched skills to guide and protect rather than kill. It’s a beautifully hopeful finale, and one that offers a fresh perspective on the typically dour stories of ruined or defeated heroes of most wuxia films. If the great Hou Hsiao-hsien can deliver this kind of masterstroke this late in his career, it give us devoted faithful hope that maybe his best is still yet to come.