Director: Hou Hsiao-Hsien
12A | 105 min | Drama | 22 January 2016 (UK)
Playing London Film Festival 2015
The master of stillness and doyen of quiet realist narratives, Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien, turns his attention to the wuxia (martial arts) genre in The Assassin, combing all the ravishing costumes and elegant sets you would expect but fused with his tendencies to favour lengthy takes, diffuse narratives, and to track character interactions through languid back-and-forth camera pans in confined spaces. Though Hou won the Best Director prize at Cannes for his new 9th Century-set epic, this writer found the film hobbled by the flaw of having characters lacking the same level of vibrancy as the visuals. The last Hou film this writer saw was 2001s Millennium Mambo, which also starred The Assassin’s lead performer Shu Qi (who also worked with Hou on Three Times), and unlike this new piece, Mambo’s characters felt compellingly alive. In The Assassin there is maybe too much of that trademark stillness.
In the dying days of China’s Tang Dynasty, Shu Qi’s titular assassin character – Nie Yinniang – is given a new set of orders as punishment for letting her emotions stay her hand on her last mission. The warrior nun who abducted her as a child and trained her in the deadly arts is most displeased at her pupil’s hesitation at killing her target (she caught sight of the man’s young son and retreated). But this nun has a unique way of showing displeasure. Yinniang’s fate is thus to be sent back to her homeland to kill the man to whom she was once betrothed – the governor of the powerful Chinese state of Weibo Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen from Three Times and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). But the governor Tian Ji’an also happens to be Yinniang’s cousin. This twisted test of loyalty is designed to purge any last feelings towards family and the past from Yinniang’s soul.
We actually first see Yinniang’s killer instinct on display in a pre-credit scene shot in crisp high contrast Academy ratio black and white, as she carries out a hit with brutal grace. Hou cuts away from this action scene abruptly, not giving us the kind of lengthy, ballet-esque dances of death intrinsic to the wuxia genre. Thus approach continues throughout the film; fights only intermittently occur, and are usually concluded quickly, or shown from a distance. This, and other Hou-like flourishes, make the film feel much more grounded than that of a typical wuxia, even though The Assassin sure looks the part.
As Yinniang, Shu Qi cuts a striking, intense figure, capable of handling the physicality of the role, but the film never gets us close enough to her to feel her inner turmoil as she skirts the edges of the governor’s household, teasing him with evidence of their connection. It doesn’t help that it is a challenge to get on top of all the motives of, and connections between, the various characters around Yinniang whist aligning these with all the political manoeuvrings in the background. Not least when much of this is being passed on via deadening exposition delivered very, very haltingly by various characters. Hou has been able to bring us into character’s lives even with murky narratives in the past, but doesn’t manage it quite so well here. Things are just too cool, especially when compared to Hou’s last film that played at Cannes, Flight of the Red Balloon, which was far more richly involving in terms of character.
At least the film remains an exquisite visual experience. You frequently shoots his decorous, low-lit sets through curtains or gauze, whilst opening up the film later on with wide shots of misty valleys and lush forests. The visual approach, handled by Hou’s regular cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bing, actually shifts as the film runs on, from the aforementioned high-contrast black-and-white Academy ratio in the prelude, to more expressive colour and a 1.85:1 ratio when Yinniang arrives in Weibo. The costuming is magnificent, the flowing robes worn by a cast who all seem to move – or as more often as not, stand still – with an unearthly grace. This does succeed in creating a dreamily rich atmosphere appropriate to the mythos of wuxia, but couldn’t Hou have matched this to richer characters and an ever so slightly less baffling plot too?