What was your first wuxia film? Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)? Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2003), or House of Flying Daggers (2004)? Maybe an old classic, like the Shaw Brothers’ The One-Armed Swordsman (1967)? With its balletic, often on wires martial arts, loner warrior heroes and sumptuous period trappings, chances are you’ve been watching and loving wuxia movies longer than you realize. While Ang Lee undoubtedly brought the martial arts swords and sorcery of wuxia to the Western masses, it’s even more of a surprise to find an arthouse legend taking on the genre. After an absence of eight years, Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-Hsien bends wuxia to his own unique sensibilities with his latest opus, The Assassin (2015).
I’ve talked about Hou Hsiao-Hsien before. Regular biffbampoppers might recall TIFF put on a retrospective of the venerable Taiwanese director back in February, 2015. It was one of the tougher programs I’ve tackled, leaving me bewildered, admiring, and occasionally bored. Which is funny, cuz there’s no doubt Hou’s films are world-class features, garnering awards and raves even as people try to puzzle them out. His films aren’t exactly impenetrable, but they’re mighty opaque. And so goddamned beautiful. Give the man a Bolex, drop him in a featureless white room, and he’d make something exquisite and compelling. Renowned for arthouse pics like Flowers of Shanghai (1998) and Flight of the Red Baloon (2007), Hou favours long takes, emotional distance and elliptical plots. Half the action in a Hou film takes place off-screen, and you spend much of the movie trying to figure out what you missed. The Assassin is no exception, with a complicated plot, methodical pace and inscrutable characters, but it’s so hypnotically gorgeous that even die-hard martial arts lovers should linger in the film’s mesmerizing fog.
Set in ninth century China, Qi Shu is Nie Yinniang, an assassin so adept she can fell a man on horseback within seconds, her deft blade severing his jugular as she disappears into the shadowy woods. Called upon to murder a local governor, Yinniang hesitates, finding her target with his young son. She lets him live, to the quiet fury of her instructor, the deadly nun (Fang-yi Sheu) that trained her from childhood. To drive out every last vestige of sentiment, the nun punishes Yinniang, instructing her to slay her cousin and first love, Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen). Now the governor of Weibo province, Tian Ji’an and Yinniang were once betrothed. She approaches her task with considerable reluctance, biding her time, confronting Tian and slipping away again, always studying the court and her prey. The court’s complexities dominate much of the film, with Tian’s rival love interests and the intrigue of tension with a distant Emperor providing a confounding backdrop for the understated ambiguity of Yinniang’s plight. Not that there isn’t action or fighting. Beautiful swordplay set pieces, including a wonderful rooftop standoff, spark the film with fleeting stabs of excitement. Yinniang’s skill renders these tests far too brief, but her indecision, like a medieval Asian Hamlet, motivates the story with her moody hesitation.
Hou’s longtime cinematographer Ping Bin Lee returns for extraordinary work. The film is shot in the near-square Academy aspect ratio, evoking ancient Chinese portraiture and landscape paintings. The black-and-white opening gives way to breathtaking colour, each frame perfectly constructed. Repeated shots of Tian in his chambers, gleaming out-of-focus beads in the foreground, are pure cinematic beauty, and Hou’s command is astonishing. In one throwaway moment, the camera pans slowly across a lake, and a bird appears out of nowhere, flapping restlessly in the direction of the pan. Luck or agonizing deliberation, it’s impossible to know how Hou captured that moment. The entire film exudes that masterly intensity, and Hou’s best director prize from this year’s Cannes is well earned. The Assassin is a painstaking meditation on duty, history, compassion and the cost of action. As wuxia it’s more of a curio, its genre deviations the product of Hou’s rigorous formalism. Whether it’s a mythic tale of an assassin choosing not to kill, or a loose metaphor for Hou’s home Taiwan in the shadow of China, the film is open to myriad interpretations. In spite of its flatness, The Assassin is strangely commanding. As the killer Yinniang discovers, perhaps it’s simply best to be.
The Assassin opens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto on Friday, October 30th, and is already in limited release in the USA. For tickets and more info, see here.