"Pure cinema" is a term often overused, but in 'The Assassin' we have a film that redefines purity on screen from one everlasting moment to the next.
The Assassin (NYFF Review)
Master craftsman Hou Hsiao-Hsien, whose last film was over seven years ago (Flight of the Red Balloon), returns to the world cinema stage with The Assassin. It’s a grand return, one that has left many cinephiles breathless, stunned, and slightly paralyzed in its wake. For the magic he managed to conjure on screen, Hou received the Best Director award at Cannes. It’s his first dabble in the wuxia genre (traditional martial art), an integral part of Chinese culture and art history, and thanks to his perfectionist dedication to the language of cinema, history will no doubt look back on his contribution as one that’s strengthened this tradition. The immediate predecessors that come to mind, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero, and House of Flying Daggers, have all been expertly cut down and defeated by the new champion of 21st century wuxia. You might have to go all the way back to the 70s, and the films of King Hu, to find a matching opponent.
Of course, I write the martial arts analogies with a cheeky smile. Hou Hsiou-Hisen’s new picture is no way competing with Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou’s films. It’s just that The Assassin is building uncharacteristic castles in a familiar sandbox, and the result is a film simultaneously beholden to a long-standing tradition and levitating in its own league. We use ‘slice of life’ to describe films in contemporary settings, dealing with contemporary problems and usually shot in that shaky cinéma vérité style, but Hou transports us to 8th century China so completely that he manages to achieve something altogether remarkable. A slice of Tang Dynasty life, shot in the equivalent of an 8th century imperial shake: the methodical to-and-fro.
With the mise-en-scène so ornately defined, and the camera swaying as if it’s a talisman suspended on an invisible string, Ping Bin Lee’s cinematography acts as sprinkled faerie dust that completes the spell. The result is total submission and immersion into the world of The Assassin. ‘Pure cinema’ is a term often overused, but here we have a film that redefines purity on screen from one everlasting moment to the next, and because of the overwhelming magnificence of image, majesty of light, and meditation of pace, the plot of the film is tough to follow on the first go-around. Made all the tougher because of Hou’s (and the four(!) other writers credited with the story) unconventional use of expository dialogue, unannounced introductions of characters and events, and lack of concern with explanation. If one imagines The Assassin as an opera, where the flow of images overwhelm the watcher just as singers’ voices do the listener, then consider the following couple of paragraphs a libretto.
The setting is 8th century China, during the decline of the Tang Dynasty, where the province of Weibo has distanced itself as the strongest threat to the Imperial Court. Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen) is the current lord of Weibo, and cousin to our assassin, Yinniang (Shu Qi). Their shared history began when Yinniang’s mother, an imperial princess, married Ji’iang’s father, in order to seal Weibo’s promise of not attacking the Court. The two children grew close and were even betrothed to one another, but when a Ming lord wanted to forge an alliance with Weibo under the condition that it be enforced by marriage, the Princess had to break her promise to Yinniang, and Tian Ji’ian was married to Lady Tian (Zhou Yun). Rebellious to the point of putting her own life in danger, Yinniang was sent away to live under the tutelage of a Master nun (Sheu Fang-Yi). The nun taught Yinniang the ways of the sword over the years, but after failing to kill a target because he was in the presence of his son, she puts the young woman’s heart to the test. Yinniang must return to Weibo, after so many years have passed, and kill Tian Ji’an.
Most of that is history, told in stoical monologues by Yinniang’s aunt, her mother’s twin sister (Mei Yong), or by Tian Ji’ian to his concubine Huji (Hsin-Ying Hsieh). The plot becomes purposefully mystified by three narrative threads that are mostly woven between frames. The first is about one of Ji’ian’s generals, Tian Xing (Lei Zhen-Yu), who arouses panic in the Weibo council and must be escorted off the premises by the Lord Provost, Ji’an’s and Yinniang’s uncle (Ni Da-Hong). The second concerns a report given to Lady Tian about Huji’s faked period blood, which in turn introduces a mysterious sorcerer (Jacques Picoux). And the third is the involvement of a nameless mirror-polisher (Satoshi Tsumabuki), who ends up playing a key role in Tian Xing’s escort. Oh, how can I forget the nameless, masked assassin who gets in Yinniang’s way?
The narrative is as cloudy as the sky that presides like a silent judge over all of these activities. Steeped in Chinese mysticism and tradition, what maneuvers emotions in The Assassin are jades, mojo’s, tales of songbirds, and unspoken acts of mercy and kindness. Dialogue isn’t used as exposition for the action we are about to see or have seen, but exposition of events long since transpired. The very first thing we see in the film is a couple of donkeys, grazing and foreshadowing the kind of attention Hou will pay nature over the next two hours. One particularly jaw-dropping take sees Yinniang meeting her Master on a mountaintop, where the movement of the clouds is as important to the scene as the blocking, dialogue, performance, and cinematography. This all-encompassing and punctilious observation is no doubt going to mystify those audience members who are so accustomed to watching a plot-driven movie. And yet, those who pay careful attention know The Assassin‘s main plot is comprehensible, albeit one fully grasped on repeat viewings.
That’s not meant to be a slight to anyone who left The Assassin slightly confused the first time out. It’s meant as a compliment to Hou and his team – from production and costume designer Wen Ying-Huang to editor Chih-Chia Huang, cinematographer Lee and all the actors (most notably Shu Qi, who embodies Yinniang so seamlessly) – for transporting us back into the past so expertly. Every piece of fabric, every lantern, and every leaf in this film feels like it belongs with purpose, carrying within it its own rich history. Hou’s takes are long, and his camera movements are never rushed, but life’s current flows through the frames of The Assassin–-in the way her uncle looks at Yinniang, behind the curtains of Huji’s quarters, in Lady Tuan’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it smile…—suffusing the picture with a mythical potency that feels remarkably present. The volatile nature of the narrative is thus a reflection of life as the ancient philosopher Lao Tzu meant it: “Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them – that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” By abiding to this philosophy so wholeheartedly, and crafting his world so meticulously, Hou has attained the rarity of a perfect film.