ITHACA, N.Y — The Assassin, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s first film in eight years, is the fruit of a protracted yet otherwise prestigious and closely monitored production. As Hou’s first entry in the ancient Chinese genre of wuxia, known mainly to Western audiences through martial arts films like Jet Li’s Hero and, uh, Kung Fu Panda, The Assassin could even be said to pack some commercial potential. Could the Taiwanese auteur — a favorite among cinephiles, his countrymen and few else — be on the verge of a popular breakthrough?
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Not in the remotest sense. The Assassin withholds and baffles from most angles. It poses the kind of cinematic challenge not often available on Ithaca screens. Toxic praise, I am aware, but this is the kind of film I could push onto the wrong person and never hear the end of it.
Yet I’d hazard the risk, because if The Assassin demands more legwork than a crossover, Oscar-winning hit like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it is also an undisputed plastic marvel, uniting Mark Lee Ping Bin’s Academy ratio (1.33:1, pre-widescreen) cinematography, expressive landscapes and ninth-century costume and architecture into an almost inhabitable experience. I cannot stress enough, nor do justice to, the film’s immersive quality, which is in part due to its suspension of dramatic incident and the way its long, conscious takes settle human characters in the ambiance of a forest or an incense-filled room. Like Barry Lyndon and few other period films, The Assassin does not embalm history but gently nurses it to bloom, outside of any context but its own, which might as well be the present.
Giving yourself over to this film rewards the mind and senses, except for the hard-wired (or Hollywood-trained) need for legible narrative. The script — written by Hou, Chu Tien-wen, Hsieh Hai-Meng and Zhong Acheng — introduces us to Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi, ), a stoic, balletic assassin we can call the protagonist. Due to political stratagems, Yinniang’s dynastic family gave her up to a nun (Fang-Yi Sheu) when she was 10. It’s the nun, naturally, who teaches Yinniang to kill, unleashing her on corrupt politicians and even a child before sending her into the heart of Weibo province, to kill its governor Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen), who is also her cousin.
From here the focus strays from Yinniang to the different members of her clan, who uncover shards of their collective, messed-up history. (This infographic, via The Film Stage, helpfully illuminates relations that are only implied.) The more she learns, the less she appears able to carry out her mission, and before long she shuns her presumption of divine retribution in order to try to live with herself and with those who regret having caused her harm.
Yet such a summary overstates the degree to which Yinniang’s motivations are apparent, and risks distorting the film’s sensitive tone and interest in the natural, spatial and mystical. That means the psychology of characters and even their immediate fates (i.e., “Wait, did that person just die?”) keep out of sight, which can be taxing even for an art house veteran.
This leaves me at an impasse in unlocking the human heart of this film, which tends to be my primary goal. Its inscrutability here keeps me from calling my esteem for this film love.
But The Assassin’s formal assets, which are innumerable, evoke a wealth of feeling through tactile, impossible-seeming images and layered sound design. Transitioning from their violent, black-and-white prologue, Hou and Lee cue the film’s title card over a stunning, nocturnal landscape in color that is neatly divided into thirds: deep blue water at the bottom, a black scrawl of trees in the middle and clouds of sunset orange at top. The stratified harmony on display, the contrast between darkness and color, an overwhelming presence imbues the majority of the film’s images.
When indoors, Hou and Lee achieve a signature effect by placing dynamic objects out of focus in the immediate foreground while in-focus characters converse, dance or conduct some sort of important business behind. Effectively, a curtain, a skirt of a dress or a chain of candles flickers across the screen intermittently throughout a 20-second-long, three-minute-long shot. In lieu of a hard and fast purpose, Hou and Lee are out to merely raise the viewer’s optical conscience.
Given the title and genre, there are fight scenes — bloodless, briskly edited and over before you know it. If you’ve any chance of liking The Assassin, however, an “awesome scene” should resemble something like follows: mist trailing up a cliffside, atop which two women dispute philosophy without moving their bodies.
This scene as described, of Yinniang and the nun, precedes a brief, final scuffle between the two, but in its vast, daunting calm, it can be considered the film’s climax. Taking in Shennongjia, an exquisite “forestry district” in Hebei province, Hou filmed this scene in one long, long shot. The nun berates her student. “Your mind is still hostage to human sentiment,” she says. Out of nowhere a white cloud envelops the cliff and all terrestrial surroundings, except for the two women.
In interviews, Hou has testified that nature gifted that moment, without any manipulation on his or Lee or some grip’s part. If true — and how it could it not be? — it suggests, maybe, that Hou has tapped into some higher power or, less fancifully, that he has set the conditions for big, beautiful chance to interfere on his set. Either way, it throws the assurance of authorship out of whack. More to the point, the confidence of this viewer’s ability to file a decisive evaluation after just one viewing begins to look most vain.
“Your mind is still hostage to human sentiment,” the nun says to Yinniang. It applies to critics as well: In time, The Assassin will come into view, as great or almost, but for now there is no question that anyone undaunted by the word “cinema,” or healthy ambivalence, must see it.
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