A quiet, elliptic take on 8th century China combining arthouse and wuxia, Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin screams style and accomplishment.
The Great Beautyby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
If the pursuit of beauty were the only cinematic criterion, with The Assassin Hou Hsiao-Hsien would surely win every award going. But combining his beautiful yet intimately domestic epic of courtly politicking with ever-popular-at-the-box-office wuxia, Hsiao-Hsien nudges the hybrid genre – which began with Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and was quickly followed by Zhang Yimou’s Hero and House Of Flying Daggers – firmly into arthouse territory. Devoting his attention to luscious landscapes and stunning sunsets, The Assassin follows in a long line of Chinese art and aestheticism, conjuring up the silks, swords and sophistication of the Tang dynasty with effortless style. Yet from the director of A City Of Sadness and The Pupppetmaster, The Assassin isn’t without its own devastatingly elegant politics.
It’s 8th century China, and Nie Yinniang (Qi Shu), taken from her family as a child by nun Jiaxin (Sheu Fang-yi) and trained as a deadly assassin, is charged with the murder of a noble politician, who she deftly dispatches while he’s riding past on horseback. But when she fails her next contract – taking pity on her mark when his son appears – Jiaxin decides on a new hit to harden her resolve. Tasked with killing her cousin Tian Ji’an (Chen Chang) – who she was once in love with and in line to be married to, a union symbolised by a pair of jade bangles – Yinniang heads obediently to Weibo in Northern China, before taking her conscious to task as she decides whether to do her duty as an assassin or listen to her heart.
Based on the 9th century short story Nie Yinniang by Pei Xing, The Assassin keeps its lyrical form, focussing on white peonies withering outside the city walls, on the serene scene of an orange sun setting over a purple lake or on the spectacle of a bath being lusciously prepared with a stream of buckets and handfuls of petals. Ping Bin Lee’s cinematography is lavish, opening with a crisp black and white sequence before eventually settling into a breathtaking sequence where valley clouds rise to greet Jiaxin. But it’s rivalled by art direction by Ding-Yang Weng and by Wen-Ying Huang’s costumes, which create a luxuriant world of gossamer silks, rosewood furniture and sweeping cloaks. Sumptuous and soaring, it’s perhaps the most stylish film you’ll see this year.
However, as sleek and stealthy as The Assassin is, she isn’t without her awkwardnesses. And conflating a Tang short story with wuxia and cinematic aestheticism creates a strange hybrid that at times feels glacially slow. The flashes of violence are welcomely brisk, and shocking in their naturalistic and brutal style. It’s more the obscure manner with which Hou Hsiao-Hsien chooses to tell his story – where masked warriors suddenly appear with little in the way of who nor why nor wherefore. And while some of the details are charming, others linger with interminable immobility. In the end, the elliptical narrative causes The Assassin to lurch about recklessly – caught between its deafeningly simple story and a lusty insistence on artfulness.
Nevertheless, awarded Best Director at Cannes, Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien – for all his visual illuminations – can’t help but find a political resonance to his fable, with his story of the powerful yet unstable Imperial City, its politicking factions and the power struggles with its outlying garrison. Undoubtedly, with its parade of dancing concubines, brisk fights and quivering still lives, Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s film is unfathomably beautiful. And yet with its minimal dialogue, abrupt pacing and at times wilfully obscure narrative, The Assassin is also strangely but beautifully unfathomable.
The Assassin is released on 22nd January 2016 in the UK