More than two decades in the making. On Cannes prospects lists for years. Tales of a troubled production. But finally it’s here, one of the Cannes competition’s most anticipated titles: Chinese master Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin, the filmmaker’s first return to the screen since Flight of the Red Balloon in 2006.
Fans of his previous work were worried: Hou was making a wuxia film, a martial arts flick based in age-old Chinese legends. It seemed so far off his usual sensibilities. Well, fret not: despite its origins, this is a Hou Hsiao-Hsien film through and through. Still a man more interested in how a story unfolds, accidentally or not, than in the beginning and endpoint of the story itself, Hou makes The Assassin at its heart more concerned with character than with the martial arts that often define the wuxia genre. There are far less action scenes than in, for instance, Zhang Yimou’s most recent forays into the genre, or Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (perhaps the best-known wuxia film in the West), and more of the contemplative nature of Hou’s previous films. And it retains his eye for meticulous detail and careful and exquisite shot construction. His usual glacial pacing has led some to criticize the film as ‘watching paint dry,’ and there is some truth in that, although not in the way these criticasters might think. The film’s visuals are so beautifully conceived in both framing and lighting, and the art direction and costumes so rich and detailed, it is like watching a 17th century painter at work. Long, static shots with barely any action heighten this sensation. That may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for Hou’s fans and for those who derive aesthetic pleasure from film, it doesn’t get much better than this: The Assassin is a beautiful film to watch.
Of course, there is a plot as well, as hard as it may be to follow at times (another mark of a Hou Hsiao-Hsien film). The Assassin tells the story of Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi, in her third collaboration with Hou), abducted at a young age by an unnamed nun, and trained to be a silent killer charged with assassinating corrupt local governors. When she fails one of her assignments because she shows pity for her prospective victim, the nun sends her back home to the renegade province of Weibo (the story is set at the end of the Tang dynasty, when several provinces broke away from the Tang empire, Weibo being the chief one). The nun charges her with killing Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen, who also worked with Hou before), the Weibo governor. Complicating factor: Tian Ji’an is Nie Yinniang’s cousin, and the man she was betrothed to before being abducted. This has her facing a dilemma: will she sacrifice the man she loves, or the sacred code of the assassin and her devotion to her mistress, the nun?
It is this personal choice that Hou is more concerned with than the typical wuxia action. Sure, there are the highly choreographed fights that we know of the genre, often as akin to ballet as they are to martial arts, but they are often shorter, and also noticeably more subdued and grounded than their counterparts in other films: not as much flying, or ‘people doing pirouettes on the ceiling,’ as Hou himself calls it. Instead, we get long takes of characters contemplating their actions and emotions. A scene between Tian Ji’an and his pregnant concubine Huji in particular is touching and laden with emotions, even if they are not outwardly expressed in an overt manner. Furthermore, Shu Qi’s soulful eyes tell the story of a woman torn between her duty and her feelings. It is a quiet performance by the actress, way too subtle to make a play for the Best Actress award here in Cannes, but a performance that The Assassin is centered around.
It is hard to come up with flaws in the film. As said, the plot is befuddling at times, and to fully grasp the tale will require a second viewing for most, but being immersed in this meticulously created world is like stepping into a warm bath. The eye for detail is in every technical aspect, and the strong performances infuse the characterization of what otherwise could be somewhat clichéd characters with just enough humanity to care. A film clearly more geared for the arthouse crowd than those looking for spectacle, The Assassin fully delivers on its promise. It has been a long wait, but at long last we can say it was worth it.