Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s films are not known for their quick pace or frenetic movement. Someone unfamiliar with his work might look at a film like Flowers of Shanghai or Three Times, with their drawn-out scenes of dour people talking past each other while the camera studies them from afar, and dismiss it as artless, boring nonsense. In this respect The Assassin sees him make little changes by applying his knack for stillness to the implicitly sweeping and frenetic wuxia genre, resulting in a film that might still be aggravating for someone looking for something more energetic, something like Zhang Yimou’s Hero or Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. That being said, the sheer beauty of its direction (and the controlled melodrama of its performances) cannot be denied.
The Assassin adapts the ancient Pei Xing story “Nie Yinniang,” in which the titular young woman (Shu Qi) is stolen from her home province of Weibo at childhood and raised to become a political assassin by a reclusive nun (Sheu Fang-yi). After sympathy causes her to fail her latest mission, Yianning is then tasked with killing her cousin, who now governs Weibo and must be eliminated to alleviate the tension between Weibo and the Imperial Court.
Hou’s signature visual style is Kubrickian in its meticulousness, with The Assassin’s costumes and sets dripping with detail and his camera keeping mercifully out of the way so that the eyes can drink in every piece of jade and every intricately designed piece of pottery in each location. Along with cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bing, Hou makes a blissful return to the 1.33:1 Academy ratio, easing viewers in with a black-and-white prologue (evocative of the best Kurosawa) before coolly shifting into the subtle, affecting colors of the Chinese countryside.
As with so many stories set in feudal China, it can be easy for people unfamiliar with Chinese history and culture to get lost in all the high-court intrigue: this person has a mistress, that person has been revealed as a political liability, this random old guy is some sort of wizard who uses smoke monsters to strangle high court members, etc. Hou lingers over the simple gestures of the ordinary, regardless of whether or not they fit into the plot – he spends minutes at a time watching servants ritualistically pour hot water into a bath, or the kind lord Tian Xian (Chang Chen) play-fighting with his eager son. It’s these moments in which Hou’s truly interested, keeping Yianning’s deadly presence in the periphery to lend a feeling of inevitability to each new interaction. What’s most impressive is seeing the ethereal Shu Qi eke out such a deep well of emotion from a character who, for the most part, says and does nothing. Her eyes, and the way Hou frames her, speak volumes.
The bread and butter of most wuxia films is the action scenes; Hou still offers that in The Assassin, but his dispensary of stylized violence is deliberately frustrating, offering short spurts of huge wire-fu melees filmed behind thick forests from a distance, or focusing on one character’s reaction offscreen while swords clash in the background. These scenes often stop as abruptly as they start, and Hou doesn’t provide easy context for many of them. (One late-film showdown with another masked female assassin is particularly head-scratching if you don’t read between the lines.) You would almost think all the wuxia material was a genre trapping he had to begrudgingly include to tell this story, if the sense of obscurity and stillness didn’t also feel deeply purposeful.
In his way, Hou has almost created the anti-wuxia film in The Assassin, exercising the same directorial restraint in sword-swinging combat as he does in capturing the historical melodrama that unfolds. As with the stoic Yianning, Hou’s approach finds beauty and intrigue in the static, using the film’s languorous pace not to bore audiences, but to impress upon them the sheer majesty of Weibo’s landscapes, the fluidity of Yianning’s deadly skill, and the simple rhythms of everyday life. The Assassin is a labor of love seven years in the making for Hou Hsiao-hsien, and that attention to detail is evident in every single frame.
If you’re looking for a fun, breezy and fast-paced martial arts flick, The Assassin will be deeply frustrating, and it’s sure to even challenge the attention spans of foreign audiences hoping for something a little more exciting. But as a piece of visual poetry and immaculate production design, it soars.