Written by Tinzar Lwyn
“I’ve never cared all that much about explications, especially psychological ones. If a film is a river, or more exactly a torrent, I’m more interested in the course it takes, its speed, its detours, its whirls and eddies, than I am in its source or where it reaches the sea.”
If you prefer a martial arts film that arrives at predictable shores, then The Assassin might not be one for you. Director Hsiao-hsien Hou takes the tradition of the wuxia and shrouds it in opaque existential concerns, winning him the prestigious Best Director gong in Cannes. This is a moody martial arts film, with not a lot of martial arts and narratively speaking, more to read between the lines, than on the lines themselves. During these Covid-days, when quiet introspection is the mode du jour, director Hou’s unique and challenging offer, might be a timely watch.
Set in 9th century China, The Assassin is inspired by Pei Xing (裴鉶)’s Tang dynasty short story, Nie Yinniang. The film follows the story’s namesake, played by Li-Hui Lin aka Shu Qi 舒淇. Early on we learn that Nie Yinniang is a trained righteous assassin and while she has mastered the sword, she has failed to abandon human sentiment. Her displeased master, a Buddhist nun, sends her home to the district of Weibo, with orders to kill its Governor, Tian Ji’an (played by Chen Chang 張震). Unfortunately, he was once her betrothed, forcing Nie Yinniang to choose between love and duty.
While the wuxia plot circles the, ‘to kill or not to kill’ dilemma for Nie Yinniang, the film’s narrative tackles issues of identity, belonging and exile. Nie Yinniang, ever the outsider, like King Kopen’s fabled bluebird, cannot speak of her sadness until she finds her likeness in a mirror. Significantly, the character of The Mirror Polisher, played by Satoshi Tsumabuki, cares for an injured Nie Yinniang and at the film’s conclusion, becomes her travelling companion to Xinro. Why Xinro and for what purpose, who knows. Hou’s films do not end with the sense of closure we are accustomed to, instead they resemble smoke curling into clouds – indistinct, undramatic and perhaps far closer to the rhythms of real life.
There is an observational quality to the films of Hsious-Hsein Hou, that steer clear of melodrama. The camera is never in the eyeline of the actors, we watch them obliquely and often from the shadows. Events unfold slowly, in long wide shots, undramatised. Hou pays little heed to traditional film tropes and visual language. There is minimal use of the close-up - film’s efficient short-hand, for dramatizing and communicating what to think and feel. And while its absence forces us to be watchful from a distance and meditate on truth and beauty, it can also at times leave us feelings discomfort - grappling with the illusive nature of meaning.
Shot by Hou’s friend and collaborator, Director of Photography Mark Lee Ping Bing 李屏賓, The Assassin is utterly exquisite to behold. The painterly quality of both the black and white prologue and the intense colour sequences, is masterful. Each frame resembles a classical Chinese painting, with every natural element, including light and shade, in perfect harmony. And when we consider the patience required to capture the natural beauty of these landscapes, with unpredictable elements such as fog and birds and clouds, the filmmakers’ achievement boggles the mind.
The spectacular beauty of the film’s frame is enhanced by the gentle elegance of its edit, thanks to the work of Editing Director, Ching-Sung Liao and Editor Chih-Chia Huang. The difficulty of maintaining an absorbing rhythm, in a film that frames its drama in static, wide-shots, cannot be underestimated. The eye is easily distracted by frenetic action in a frame and edits under those circumstances appear seamless. It is much tougher to disguise the stitching, when working with a restrained and tranquil cinematography. The Assassin is a colossal achievement.
Given its aesthetic beauty and narrative complexity, Hsiao-Hsien Hou’s The Assassin is better served on the big screen. The film requires the absolute immersion of a cinematic experience for full effect. However, given we are living an abridged life, a compromised version of The Assassin is better than none at all.
The Assassin is available on SBS On Demand and is not to be missed.
Written by Tinzar Lwyn
Interview coverage in Chinese below: