By John Esther | October 16, 2015
Director: Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Writers: Ah Cheng, Chu T’ien-wen, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Hsieh Hai-Meng, Pei Xing
Starring: Qi Shu, Chen Chang, Satoshi Tsumabuki, Hsieh Hsin-Ying, Dahong Ni, Juan Ching-Tian, Fang-yi Sheu, Chun Shih, Yun Zhou
Set during the first decade of 9th-century China, the latest film by director/co-writer Hou Hsaio-Hsien (Three Times; Raise the Red Balloon) tells the story of a woman who cannot seem to follow orders and kill her target.
Once destined for a life of privilege, Yinniang Nie (Qi Shu) was kidnapped at the age of 10 by a decorated general and raised by a Princess-nun, Jiaxin (Fang-Yi Sheu). Jiaxin taught the discarded girl martial arts.
Thirteen years later — where the eventually-colored film commences in black and white — Yinniang is now a trained assassin ordered to kill corrupt officials during the final years of the Tang Dynasty (06/618-06/907).
As hard and as quiet as ice, Yinniang can kill any man her heart desires. Technically, she has not met her match — other than Jiaxin whose skills remain superior to that of her protege’s skills. But when her next target is Lord Tian Ji’an (Chen Chang), the governor of Weibo, the largest and most powerful province in Mainland China, her will may not be able to match her might.
Yinniang and Lord Tian have a history. Thanks to the somewhat contradictory subtitles (and I do not speak Mandarin), the relationship is a bit unclear. It appears the two were once engaged, but family and politics changed those plans. They may be blood related; maybe Yinniang was adopted. There is a lot more talk about what happened than the subtitles would suggest. (Who cares, just keep looking at the pretty images.) At any rate, Yinniang still has feelings for Lord Tian. This does not please Jiaxin.
As our titular protagonist struggles with her dilemma, she silently moves through the king’s court — hiding behind curtains or up in a high corner (a fly on the wall) — listening to the inner political struggles between the nearby provinces who strategize — mostly off screen. The ruling class of each province wish to please Emperor Ai while holding back their subjects who may revolt if life gets any worse. This takes resources and resources are always short. Yinniang may have to save Lord Tian rather than kill him.
The 2015 Cannes Film Festival Winner for Best Director, in terms of marketing, The Assassin is an awful title for the film. Those who know nothing of the film, yet could appreciate it, will probably overlook it and seek out something sounding less violent. In particular, I am thinking of the generally-conservative, elderly members of AMPAS. The Assassin is Taiwan’s official Oscar Entry for Best Foreign Language Film.
On another hand, those who assume The Assassin will be an adrenaline-fueled spectacle — like many other films with the same title — will be bored out of his or her impatient skulls. The Assassin is a film focusing on story, plot and atmosphere. There is a lot of dialogue, nuance, and details to catch. (If you thought Kar-wai Wong’s 2013 film, The Grandmaster, was slow, you may want to pass here.)
There are very few fight scenes in the film, seemingly to function as a semicolon to advance the story. They are short, sweet and to the next point. Martial Arts Consultant Wai Stephen Tung capitalizes on the brevity of the kung fu action — often set against the long and distant camerawork.
But the real strength (and strain) of The Assassin is the mise-en-scène by Hou and director of photographer Mark Lee Ping Bing (In the Mood for Love; Renoir). For the most part The Assassin contains magnificent visuals of beautiful landscapes (shot in the Hubei Province of in the northeast of China), highly detailed interiors of the period (so I am told), and poetic shots of the luscious interior design and costumes by Wern-Ying Hwarng (constructed in Taiwan).
However, The Assassin exudes an air of preciousness that seems highly self-conscious. This is one very stylized world. The costumes, the people, the woods, the art, and the interiors are relentlessly pretty. Other than human nature, The Assassin suggests there was nothing ugly to witness during this period in time.