Hou Hsiao-Hsien returns to the cinema with The Assassin, an enigmatic and distant motion picture that certainly shows more than it tells. This 2015 film features a screenplay by Hsiao-Hsien, Chu Tien-wen, Hsieh Hai-Meng, and Zhong Acheng and makes use of the wonderful cinematography of Mark Lee Ping Bin, who shot Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love along with Christopher Doyle.
The Assassin is loosely based on Pei Xing’s “Nie Yinniang,” a late ninth century story that has inspired many a wuxia film. Hsiao-Hsien takes a different approach than, say, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in that he places the audience on the outside looking in. Ping Bin positions the lens behind filmy curtains, in the tall grass, behind the trees.
The story takes place in the eight century during the Tang Dynasty, with Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi) tasked as an assassin to take out corrupt politicians. Her master Jiaxin (Sheu Fang-yi) is a nun who kidnapped her when she was only 10-years-old. With her life spent learning the art of killing, Yinniang becomes a reserved, silent woman. Her past is a haze of possibilities.
One day, Yinniang shows mercy on an assignment and is subsequently punished by Jiaxin. She is sent on a mission to kill the military governor Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen) in Weibo province. The catch is that Ji’an is Yinniang’s cousin – and the man she was once to marry. Complicated feelings persist and Yinniang does her best to alert Ji’an of her presence without actually doing the deed.
Shu Qi is stellar as the titular character, a killer with a sense of uncommon mercy. When she comes across a target playing with his child, she can’t complete her mission and slinks back into the shadows. She takes her punishment from the incensed Jiaxin without flinching, which reveals her nature as a bold yet stoic servant.
Hsiao-Hsien allows the audience to get to know Yinniang through silent, slow moments of observation. The Assassin is certainly a very quiet film, with the Lim Giong score only appearing a few times to provide some layering. For the most part, Hsiao-Hsien is interested in groaning doors and footfalls across wooden floors. The breeze whispers its own music, too, and the night sings.
This helps ensconce the audience in the realism of The Assassin, which seems a funny thing to mention when dealing with the wuxia genre. But there are only small leaps from the ground to speak of, with most of the action taking place in terse flurries. Sometimes opponents walk away from each other, a soundless understanding shared between combatants.
This can initially make The Assassin seem baffling, at least in terms of convention. There are no gory, gaudy battles. The violence is suggested, often observed from unusual distances. Sometimes the viewer sees through the trees, sometimes the viewer can’t see through the trees. All the while, Hsiao-Hsien and Ping Bin maintain space while still allowing the emotional core of the story to shine.
This underlines how Yinniang approaches combat, which is to say that it isn’t a blissful endeavour for the character. She doesn’t bathe in the blood of her enemies. She’s not bound to tawdry flourishes with a sword. She doesn’t float through the trees, but she can disappear. For the most part, Yinniang lurks and waits. She considers things, weighs them out. And then she strikes.
Hwarng Wern-ying’s sets and costumes are remarkable, with authentic touches providing for deeper layers. Hsiao-Hsien meticulously crafts his world. He reportedly ensconced himself in Tang Dynasty history and it shows in the tenderly textured frames. It also shows in how restrained and intimate things can look, with the interior staging illustrating an almost domestic circumstance.
Without question, The Assassin may prove wearisome for some. That’s okay. Hsiao-Hsien isn’t interested in providing a stirring crowd-pleaser. This is a contemplative approach to a genre that often revels in action and the fantastic. It showcases another side to slaying, turns another eye to the character of the great assassin, unfastens the truisms and values the watching, waiting, wondering.