|The Assassin may kill your expectations – not that there’s anything wrong with that. Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s long-awaited wuxia is an accomplished and laudable work, and seems poised to earn plenty of admirers among film intelligentsia over the long term. In the short term the film will disappoint some audiences; The Assassin is likely a mismatch for the martial arts crowd as its aesthetic is antithetical to what commercial audiences expect from a film with this iconography. Swords, assassins, costumes, palace intrigue, people who can jump pretty high – to many average filmgoers that stuff means elaborately-choreographed martial arts if not balls-to-the-wall action craziness. Just by what The Assassin is about, people expect certain things from it and they will not get those things. What they will get is a pure martial arts fiction adaptation that rewards the more one chooses to engage with its deliberately unfiltered narrative and style. Time to choose your side, people.
Based on a classic novella by Pei Xing, The Assassin tells the tale of Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), a black-clad assassin who dispatches corrupt officials at the behest of Taoist nun Jiaxin (Sheu Fang-Yi). In the prologue, Yinniang decides not to kill one of her targets because he has a son – yes, just like the opening of The Bourne Identity. Noting this, Jiaxin next asks Yinniang to kill her own cousin, regional governor Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen), who was once promised to be Yinniang’s husband. The marriage was arranged during childhood, but Yinniang was soon shuttled off to Jiaxin’s care thus breaking the engagement. While Yinniang stalks Tian Ji’an prior to the kill, she discovers plenty of Dallas going on in this palace. An escort mission puts Yinniang’s father, General Nie Feng (Ni Dahong), in danger, while Tian Ji’an’s favored concubine Huji (Nikki Hsieh) is rumored to be pregnant. The latter news does not sit well with Tian Ji’an’s wife, Lady Tian (Zhou Yun). Naturally.
Yinniang’s role is to be an assassin, but due to all the political intrigue, she ends up playing protector more than is expected – a major thematic point of The Assassin, though the script doesn’t offer dialogue to support it. Instead of being conveyed verbally or in an overt fashion, Yinniang’s decisions occur silently and internally. She observes before striking or not striking, and the audience is forced to also observe and contemplate thanks to Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s trademark storytelling – which is known for the almost complete absence of what many modern film audiences might term “style”. Hou employs long takes, elliptical storytelling and natural camera movement that’s not kinetic or manipulative to cast the audience as observers. The characters may be engaged in dire events but they also simply exist, so we observe their minute behaviors as they walk to and from destinations, or as they simply stand still according to the demands of their assignment or role. It’s not a very exciting way to mount a wuxia but it’s undoubtedly consistent and thoughtful.
The Assassin presents what might be termed a “real” martial arts world, in that it combines people who can “fly” (Yinniang’s leaps are beyond human ability) with natural settings free from artifice. What the film does not do, however, is attempt to deconstruct the wuxia genre. Unlike The Sword Identity, which presented a realistic martial arts world in setting while dryly poking fun at the genre’s absurdities, The Assassin is content to simply present characters and situations in a realistic manner without calling attention to itself. The film doesn’t acknowledge the wuxia genre; it doesn’t point out its conventions nor trump up its recognizable themes and iconography. What differentiates Hou’s work is how the film moves, in a manner that reflects life’s slow, silent passage. The choreography is intricate – not the fighting, which is actually fairly brief and unexciting, but how the characters and camera simply move through space. The story unfolds by following their movements and rhythms, rather than springing from stage directions or dialogue.
The grace and economy of The Assassin possess an artistry that, to be fair, could be called boring. The lack of overt tension and attention-getting style means a tough slog for those who expect film to tell them what to think and feel. The non-widescreen frame could present an issue for some; The Assassin is framed largely at 1:33 to 1, meaning none of those wide vistas that you might expect from an epic film. However, the tighter focus keeps matters intimate, and turns some sequences, like the moments peeping at Tian Ji’an and Huji through obscuring curtains, into voyeurism. Again, this is not for audiences who expect tracking shots and montage – if it hasn’t been said plainly enough, I should reiterate: This movie is not for the action film crowd. Instead, this is a wuxia story in the purest sense, in that it draws from written fiction while ignoring the countless films that came before it. If anything, The Assassin should be described as pre-modernist.
The Assassin ends quietly, with a denouement that’s as predictable as it is appropriate. The film starts with a trope and ends with one, and while the full narrative arc seems familiar, Hou Hsiao-Hsien elevates the experience, negating clichés by refusing to play up their conventional meaning. Like the content, the actors have no pretensions, except perhaps Chang Chen, whose glowering Tian Ji’an stands out almost like a sore thumb. Shu Qi is silent and impassive, but hewing to the actress’ strengths, Yinniang consistently shows active inner thought and emotion. Like the storytelling and the beautiful photography, more can be gleamed from Shu Qi’s performance upon repeat viewing. Hou Hsiao-Hsien presents a complete and rich martial arts world with beauty to be found in every frame, every scene and every motion – and it takes an active audience to discover it. In a post Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero world, The Assassin may not be as exciting as expected, but its pure intent and unfettered storytelling will likely make it timeless.