by Matt Levine
Many movies realize the importance of dynamics, interspersing scenes of visceral intensity with moments of quiet and calm. But in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin, the dynamism is so extremely stylized that something else happens: between the martial arts scenes, which happen as quickly and unexpectedly as a sword-thrust, and long, languorous shots of near-silent radiance, a melancholy portrait of humanity is evoked. These characters—so often dressed in flowing robes and gowns that seem to introduce new colors to our eyes, infinite deep purples and sunshine golds—suffer quietly, experiencing longing and grief and shame with hardly a twitch on their stoic features. But when swords are drawn and bodies begin to move, the passions and pains of being human take ravishing form onscreen, manifesting themselves in meticulous movement rather than mundane dialogue.
Landmark Lagoon Cinema
Director: Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Producers: Huang Wen-Ying, Liao Ching-Sung
Writers: Zhong Acheng, Chu T'ien-wen, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Hsieh Hai-Meng, Pei Xing (short story)
Cinematographer: Mark Lee Ping-Bing
Editors: Huang Chih-Chia, Liao Ching-Song
Music: Lim Giong
Cast: Shu Qi, Chang Chen, Chang Shao-Huai, Hsieh Hsin-Ying, Juan Ching-Tian, Zhen Yu Lei, Mei Fang, Ni Dahong, Sheu Fang-yi, Zhou Yun
Countries: Taiwan/China/Hong Kong/France
Premiere: May 21, 2015 – Cannes Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: October 16, 2015
US Distributor: Well Go USA
Such an apparent contradiction—feverish emotions conveyed through slow, quiet, smoldering beauty—might not sound surprising to those familiar with the work of Hou Hsiao-hsien. One of the world’s foremost directors, the Taiwanese Hou has been pioneering the use of extremely long takes with minimal camera movement for decades. Early films like A Time to Live, a Time to Die (1985) and City of Sadness (1989) document how the lives of individuals are transformed by massive social change, in these cases the plight of Chinese who fled their homeland for Taiwan in the late 1940s (by which point the Communist regime had taken over) and were brutally persecuted by the Kuomintang, a hardship that Hou’s own family experienced. Later films like The Puppetmaster (1993) and Goodbye South, Goodbye (1996) continued to follow individuals or families through tumultuous political environments while further refining Hou’s austere aesthetic, which borrows equally from Andrei Tarkovsky and classical Chinese painting. More recently, Hou has worked with Japanese and French production companies on films like Café Lumière (2003) and Flight of the Red Balloon (2007), which focus on the rift between the past and the present while questioning the erasure of national boundaries in a globalized world.
He’s had a stellar and varied filmography, in other words, but The Assassin still marks something new for the 68-year-old director. Mostly funded (for the first time in his career) by Chinese and Hong Kong companies, Hou’s newest provided a larger budget than he’s ever worked with, leading him to admit: “the scale is much bigger, and that makes every detail different, so now even I have to adjust my scale.” This can be clearly seen in the ravishing costumes and jaw-dropping set design that bring to life the movie’s 9th-century Tang Dynasty setting. The Assassin also marks the first martial-arts (or wuxia) film for Hou, though the action scenes are injected into the fabric of the movie in idiosyncratic fashion. Thematically, however, Hou continues to wed an interest in human lives with the broad social machinery that surrounds them, having mastered his achingly beautiful style to the point that the Cannes Film Festival finally awarded him Best Director in 2015.
Stories, to Hou, are something to be told visually rather than through explicating dialogue, which can make the plots of his films somewhat oblique. This is certainly true of The Assassin, which has baffled critics who diligently try to follow its political intrigue. In essence, though, the story is quite simple: the assassin of the title is Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), a daughter of the Imperial Court who is sent to live with a nun, Jiaxin (Sheu Fang-yi), at the age of ten. Jiaxin trains Yinniang to perfect her martial-arts skills so she can eliminate corrupt governors; her sense of duty is tested, however, when she is unable to kill a politician whose young son is sleeping in his arms. As a sort of punishment, Jiaxin sends Yinniang to the northern province of Weibo in order to kill Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen), a military governor—and Yinniang’s cousin—to whom she was betrothed before she was forced to leave the royal court as a child.
The Assassin is based on a canonical 9th-century short story by Pei Xing, and although Hou and his co-screenwriters (Chu Tien-Wen, Hsieh Hai-meng, and Zhong Acheng) add a lot of court intrigue involving conspiracy and secession, the story remains mostly timeless—that of two lovers separated by a heartless government, with political machinations superseding the emotions of the human pawns involved. Familiar subject matter for Hou, in other words, though he’s never couched his icy humanism in the tropes of the wuxia genre before. It is a strange blend indeed, with action scenes suddenly ripping across the screen between static shots that list minutes on end, and at times Hou seems to acknowledge that he’s the last director you’d expect to make an action movie; one fight scene, for example, features dozens of swordsmen obscured by a tree-lined forest, the sight of foliage dancing in the wind more important than the violence taking place behind it. While such a conflation seems destined to frustrate action fans and flummox hardcore cineastes, it’s a singular experience that points to the intense symbolism of Chinese martial-arts films—as though each swordfight and beatdown represents human longings that would otherwise go unexpressed.
The story carries real political baggage, too, considering Hou’s tricky Chinese-Taiwanese history. His family moved to Taiwan in 1947, meaning he grew up in the thick of the “White Terror,” a 38-year period in which Taiwanese dissidents were suppressed (sometimes lethally) by the Chinese Nationalist Party. While still ostensibly governed by the Republic of China, there is heated debate as to whether Taiwan should unify with the People’s Republic of China (which controls the mainland) or formally declare independence as Taiwan. Much as The Puppetmaster’s biographical narrative doubly serves as a history of Taiwan, The Assassin’s internecine political squabbles could be read as a critique of militaristic bids for power, with the film’s Imperial Court and the mutinous region of Weibo standing in for mainland China and Taiwan, respectively. Just as Yinniang and Tian Ji’an are separated by political forces larger than them—their identities dictated by governments on opposing sides of war—so are the people of China and Taiwan stratified and defined by bureaucratic states that fail to see their constituents as people. The allegory is implicit (as it surely needed to be given the movie’s Chinese financing), but it’s also readily apparent considering the themes of identity, history, politics, and public versus private spaces that Hou has often pondered in the past.
Despite its political complexity and intriguing (though admittedly aloof) narrative, The Assassin is a formal masterwork more than anything else. This is one of the few movies that can truly be described as a painting in motion; cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bing (who, in addition to working with Hou since 1985, also filmed the staggeringly beautiful In the Mood for Love) creates portraits of the natural world and of manmade splendor that are literally jaw-dropping. Shuffling between black-and-white and vibrant color, between natural sunlight and perfectly-sculpted artificial light, The Assassin creates a visual world as sumptuous as anything in the work of Hou’s influences (Tarkovsky, Kubrick, and Mizoguchi foremost among them). Dialogue scenes don’t have a static frame as much as a perspective that shifts with the subtlety of a glacier, with the camera scanning scenes incrementally; often, these tableaux are shot through veiled curtains or dancing candlelight, the screen a canvas of glittering lights and drifting shapes. The sound design (by Shih Yi Chu, Tu Duu-Chih, and Wu Shu-yao) is equally stunning, with minimalist music by Lim Giong and accentuated sound effects forming an aural tapestry that is slightly artificial, heightened beyond reality. This is a movie that must be seen and heard in a theater, reminding us of the overwhelming beauty that cinema can provide.
Surely there are those who will gripe about The Assassin’s slow pace and enigmatic style, especially for a pseudo-martial-arts movie. For those unfamiliar with Hou’s work, I’d recommend seeing The Puppetmaster and Café Lumière first—astounding films that might occasionally test your patience but will lead to something transcendent. Such movies reveal a filmmaker who, though obviously devoted to crafting beautiful works of art, exhibits a burning, suppressed sympathy for his characters, relating to their frustration over having incomplete control over their own lives. This is what makes Hou’s films more than simply gorgeous pictures: there’s a sense of inexpressible compassion pulsing quietly at their core. “Your mind is hostage to human sentiments,” Yinniang is told after failing to kill one of her targets, choosing to defy the codes of war and power that have defined her past and her identity. But in the end, The Assassin reminds us, those human sentiments are all we have.