The first thing that strikes you in The Assassin
is the quiet. Hou Hsiao-Hsien's ruminative tone-poem, about a Tang Dynasty sell-sword tasked with killing kin, is a remarkably hushed affair. Be it dialogue, sound-effects or music, at no point does the pitch of the film register beyond a whisper. All the better, I suppose, to lead you into a hypnotic lull. All the better, because anything else would detract from the film's true stars: color and light.
The Assassin has plot, but really only in the most technical sense of term. There is an action-and-consequence set of events. The characters remain the same from scene to scene, and move linearly forward through time. But what happens on screen and what the film is about are two wholly different beasts. What happens onscreen is nothing much at all. Characters in opulent dens hold endless conversations. Fights that are choreographed to an inch, but over practically before they begin. What the film is about is staring into a meadow and noticing varying hues of green. Or losing your shit while watching fog dance over a lake. What the film is about is reverie.
Hou's longtime muse Shu Qi stars as Nie Yinniang, a young noble kidnapped as a child and trained to be a killer. We first meet her and her kidnapper come den-mother, the religious zealot Jiaxing (Sheu Fang-Yi), in a black and white prologue. Sent to dispatch of a cruel local warlord, Nie Yinniang is somehow unable to go through with the task, though we don't know why. As punishment, or perhaps as a chance for redemption (or maybe something entirely else -- there's plenty left opaque here) Nie Yinniang is offered a new mission. She is to return to the home she was abducted from, integrate back into her family and kill the man she was once set to marry, the local Governor Tian Ji'an (fellow Hou veteran Chang Chen).
At this point, the Academy ratio frame fill become awash with color. And what colors they are! Positively every inch of square space is filled with the most ornate details. Tapestries and murals and painstakingly recreated 9th Century silk, all shot and lit with beatific reverence. The deep reds and sparkling golds don't so much pop off the screen as open up a corridor to invite us in. That being said, this is also where the narrative more or less drops out, giving way to natural beauty and ceremony.
Director Hou spent the better part of his nearly thirty year career planning for this film and then spent over five years actually making it. The result is a work that exudes deliberation and research. You studied every conceivable detail of court life in the late Tang Dynasty, and thoroughly weaves each one into the fabric of the film. If you think I'm being hyperbolic, dig this: Hou studied the bathing rituals the different characters would have, and just quietly had the actors incorporate that into the physical approaches without ever calling attention to it at any point in the film.
There's a great deal that's not called to attention. Narratively, that means pretty much everything. Hou's working an extreme iceberg principal here, showing and not telling, sure, but showing with the most comically understated minimalism that one gets the feeling a medium bodied wind could come and blow the whole wispy endeavour away. Much time and effort was spent creating this luminous window to the past, but like looking through most windows, what we see ends up being pretty mundane.
The fight scenes are a major case in point. Much was made about how the devoutly minimalist director would approach the wuxia genre, and in retrospect it seems all too obvious that he does so with his famous realism. Simply put, he depicts the battles of master assassin Nie Yinniang as one imagines the true battles of a master assassin: over in a flash, with the minimal expense of effort required.
In the end, it makes The Assassin a uniquely difficult film to review. If your judging criteria asks what does the film set out to do, and how well does it do it, then the work is an unqualified success. At the same time, one cannot overlook that this is an extremely difficult text to engage with. Many will find it better suited as a studied bit of installation art than any kind of gripping cinematic experience, and they wouldn't be wrong. So, just, take note of that. I guess all there is to say apropos The Assassin is "head's up!"
Review originally published during the Cannes Film Festival in May 2015. The film opens in select theaters in the U.S. on Friday, October 16.
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