Directed by Hsiao-Hsien Hou
Starring Shu Qi, Chang Chen
Having already earned Taiwanese director Hsiao-Hsien Hou a best director award at this year’s Cannes, The Assassin obviously has a pedigree to be treated with respect. Odd for a genre that is often regarded as being from the more pulpy end of the industry, yet this also follows a definite trend over the 2000s as more respected directors turn their hand to wuxia, after Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon bejeweled itself in awards fifteen years ago.
What differentiates The Assassin from other high end wuxia films is the way it treats its genre. This is more than just a kung fu film with a high end budget, an intelligent script and respected crew. Hou brings his cinematic eye to the piece, giving the film an amazing amount of polish, but also decides to turn the genre on its head while he is at it.
Loosely based on a 9th century martial arts story, The Assassin tells the tale of Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), who is removed from her family and trained by a nun to deal with corrupt officials. When she fails a mission due to compassion, she must be taught a harsh lesson by her master. So Yinniang is sent back to her family to kill the military governor of the Weibo province, Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen). Yet there is history between Yinniang and Tian, and as she is plunged into court politics, Yinniang finds herself struggling with her mission, for the man she is tasked with killing is both her cousin and former betrothed.
This is a film that takes great delight in knowing its genre, and subverting every trope in it. The Assassin does nothing in the usual way. Where the camera would normally be brought in close to allow us to see character interaction, we are given a wide angle of the landscape with the characters lost against its rugged beauty. Where it would be a wide angle shot to allow us to marvel at the location, the camera comes in tight giving us mere hints and glimpses. Where the film should concentrate on the action, it instead involves the audience with the personal and political lives of the characters. Nothing is easy, nothing is as expected, and this is as frustrating as it is rewarding.
One thing is beyond doubt though; this is an intelligent, carefully conceived and crafted piece. Whether an audience understands and appreciates it is immaterial. The Assassin is a film created to divide audiences, and will have as many detractors as ardent fans. Its slow pacing, intricate plot, and contrary nature are often frustrating, demanding that the audience pays constant attention, and work for its appreciation.
However, nothing that it does in this regard is without reason. For example, the film is set on the far edges of the Silk Road, during a time of affluence and richness of design. Naturally the costuming and set reflect this with great effort being place in design and creation. Equally natural, The Assassin decides to shoot the start of the film entirely in black and white, forcing the audience to appreciate such designs in stark, contrasting shades of grey. When the first splashes of colour appear in the credits, it is almost a relief. From there we appreciate the richness of fabric and the depth of colour, as if having been denied, we have gained new found appreciation. This is what the film constantly does: it forces us to re-evaluate our perceptions of the genre. It is brave and inspiring work.
Therein lies The Assassin’s charm. It constantly flips its middle finger to the audience expecting them to play catch up. It hides its melodrama behind political intrigue and the formalised rituals. Its action sequences are quick and fluid, but the camera doesn’t linger on them to give them import. Instead it dwells on the richness of the setting, both natural and courtly, giving us a beauty that would make the DOP of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon weep. At every turn it obfuscates and frustrates expectations. It is the bad boy of kung fu flicks, willfully breaking all the rules, to bring us something more arthouse than grindhouse.
This is the soft form to wuxia’s usual hard form. Gone are the wire-fu, the epic battles and the high melodrama. Instead, this is a film like tai chi. It is slow, gentle and flowing, beautiful in its movement, but with a deceptive power to its punch.
*(Yes. I know ninja is Japanese, but if it is good enough for the Shaw Brothers to claim a Chinese precursor in 5 Element Ninjas, then I think I’m on safe ground to make a poor pun.)