Ah, the enigma that is Hou Hsiao-Hsien's latest film, “The Assassin”. It is a critical darling, it won the Best Director Prize at Cannes this year and it was the hot ticket film at MIFF, selling out four total sessions (an extra session was added due to demand) and yet out of all the films I saw at MIFF this year, it was “The Assassin” that most people seemed to be most unhappy or thoroughly disappointed with. Three months on, I'm finding that the majority of people I talk to who have seen it, dislike it and yet its critical reception is so high. It is obvious though that those people who do like the film are passionate enough to champion it loudly and, not to pre-empt my whole review, I am one of those people.
The main plot of “The Assassin” is as basic as it gets; set during the Tang Dynasty a female assassin named Yinniang returns to her home town of Weibo on her mission to assassinate her former lover, Tian Ji'an, who also happens to be a high ranking politician. Once destined to be bound together in holy matrimony, can Yinniang actually fulfil her mission and instead be Tian Ji'an's executioner?
Expectations are a funny thing, because they have the ability to make or break a film, at least on an initial viewing. Most times I would recommend going into a film knowing as little as possible because it is then exciting finding the film for what it really is as it is unfolding before your very eyes. However in some cases I believe you need to understand just what you are about to walk into if you want to get anything out of that said film, and I believe that “The Assassin” is one such film. The two biggest complaints I heard about the film were that it was as boring as bat-shit because nothing happened, and that for a martial arts film, the fights were non-existent. To be fair, the film has been marketed as a martial arts film, and by looking at the US trailer, you would assume that the fights would be frequent and of a certain quality. However what needs to be taken into account is the director of the film and the kinds of films that he normally makes. Hou is someone who makes incredibly slow paced films, focusing heavily on tiny details and the truth of any given situation. He is not a director prone to excess, and yet at all times his films are stunningly beautiful. So when it was announced that he was going to be making a martial arts film, a few eyebrows were raised. Nothing in his films past indicated that his style would suit such a film, so going into “The Assassin” expecting something like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was always going to be a bad idea, because Hou was never going to deliver a film of that vein. The funny thing is, what he did deliver is almost exactly what you would expect from a Hou Hsiao-Hsien martial arts film if you were familiar with his previous work.
Like all of Hou's previous films, “The Assassin” is very deliberately paced to the point that most people may find it glacially slow. Personally I found this pace mesmerising, as I became totally engulfed into this world, fascinated by every tiny detail on screen. Things such as the meticulous process of preparing a bath, or a dance between husband and wife, or the beauty of a butterfly flying casually near a child; they all seemed to hold as much importance as the political dealings within the film, thus creating a fully formed world. Whilst the main plot of the film appears to be incredibly simple, it is the way the story is told that makes it so special and with how much emotion is invested into it. The reason why Yinniang is sent on her mission is because she failed at her previous job when she couldn't bring herself to assassinate her target in the presence of his young son. She is told by her mentor (the nun that brought her up and trained her) that although her skills are matchless, she is controlled by her heart too much, something that is considered a detriment in the industry she finds herself in. She needs to be as cold as they come and what better way to achieve this than by executing an ex-lover. As the story progresses, we find out that there are other reasons why the nun wants Tian Ji'an killed, but that is all that Yinniang knows. So she is an assassin with all the tools and skill to be the best in the business, but does she have the temperament to do it, and if she decides to turn her back on her adopted profession, she knows that she will be turning her back on the one person who took care of her when she needed it most and when no one else would. As you can see, there is a lot more to Yinniang's journey than just trying to kill a man.
As well as Yinniang's mission, there is also a whole lot of political dealings and going-ons behind the scenes and this is the one part of the film that really frustrates. For some reason Hou has really pared back the detail of these scenes to the point that it becomes extremely hard to work out exactly who all the main players are, and where their allegiances lie. I have watched this film twice now and still I find these scenes confusing. I am not a person that needs to be told every little detail to enjoy a film, I have no issue in having to work a little to enjoy a film, but I do not understand why Hou thought it necessary not to make these scenes clearer. Even the film's screenwriter has expressed in interviews recently that he felt Hou took too much out of this part of the film. One key character in the film is never explained who her identity really is, and that is the other assassin wearing the gold mask who Yinniang battles towards the end of the film. What is so frustrating though is that Hou has explained just who she is in interviews promoting the film, which is that she is actually Tian Ji'an's wife, who is also a secretly trained assassin but one who only dons this persona when her family is threatened. I cannot understand how anyone could think leaving this information out would make the film better. If all these tiny things were clarified a little more, we are talking a near perfect film.
Anyway, enough with the negatives, lets talk about Shu Qi and Chang Chen who play Yinniang and Tian Ji'an respectively. I must admit that I am still a little bemused by the fact that Shu Qi is something of a muse to Hou Hsaio-Hsien. While she is no doubt a gorgeous woman, I never thought her much of an actress back in the nineties when she was making all those Hong Kong films, especially when she started out with those soft core sex films. This is their fourth collaboration though, and he always gets the best out of her and she excels in playing the title role here. She has a quiet presence in the film, (in fact I doubt she has more than ten lines of dialogue in the entire film) a stillness to her, she only moves when she needs to, and no gesture is ever wasted. You can also feel an inherent sadness within her, and I believe she does not smile the entire film. You know this is a person who is not happy with what she is doing in life, no matter how good she is at doing it. She is also returning to a world and a life that should have been hers, that had once been promised to her, and you can feel she is slightly begrudged by how her life has turned out. Also as a non-martial artist Shu Qi handles herself with aplomb in these scenes. She is definitely believable that is for sure. Chang Chen on the other hand displays a certain arrogance that comes with the lifestyle that Tian Ji'an leads and yet that arrogance proves unfounded when in battle with Yinniang as he is no match for his former lover. No doubt this is due to the fact that he is so used to people doing everything for him. He is a character though that is hard to care for because he is one who is willing to do anything for himself without thinking of the consequences. Being a martial artist, Chen has no issues in the scenes that require him to fight.
Speaking of the martial arts scenes, they are as sparse as you might expect they would be in Hou Hsiao-Hsien film. He is after realism in these scenes, so no move is superfluous here just because it looks good. There is a point to each move which is either to defend or attack in the most efficient manner possible. It is a kill or be killed world, so there is no room for looking cool. Because of this the fight scenes last literally just a few seconds, but they are all beautifully filmed, choreographed and performed. There is a smattering of wire-work but you will not see any of the characters “flying” like those in other films of this nature.
Finally I need to talk about the look of “The Assassin” which is, unsurprisingly, the star of the whole movie. Hou chose to shoot the film in the 1:33 Academy ratio (on 35mm no less), somewhat against the norm of a martial arts flick which are usually shot much wider, but it is a decision that pays off in spades. It creates an intimacy and a sensuality that would be harder to achieve via the wider frame. Hou works once again with his regular director of photography, Mark Lee Ping-Bin, and the two come up with some inventive ways to tell this intimate story. I loved the scene shot through the billowing curtains, which alternated between obstructing and exposing exactly what we were seeing (through the point of view of Yinniang). I also thought that the use of colour here was especially well done. Strangely, though, the initial scene is presented in black and white and while no doubt beautiful to look at, I am dubious to the fact that this decision added anything of importance to this scene. If anyone is in any doubt as to how stunningly gorgeous this film looks, they only need to watch the trailer to get a taste of its beauty.
Overall, “The Assassin” is a beautifully quiet martial arts film. Granted, this wont be a film for everyone, but I loved it. I will admit that I was left frustrated by the decision not to make the political dealings and double dealings more clearer by explaining exactly just who everyone was and who their allegiances were to, but this is the only fault I have with this stunning film. Be warned that if you are going into this film expecting fight scenes galore, you will be left disappointed, but if you go in with an open mind and willing to accept the richer drama on show here, you will be greatly rewarded.