A female assassin during the Tang Dynasty begins to question her loyalties when she is ordered to kill the cousin she was once betrothed to.
It’s an indisputable fact that Hou Hsiao-hsien’s first wu xia movie The Assassin is an exquisitely beautiful film. Shot by frequent Hou collaborator, the superb cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin (who Wong Kar-wai turned to when his relationship with Christopher Doyle soured during In The Mood For Love), each frame is a joy to behold.
Although shot on 35mm, The Assassin was projected digitally at both Sydney (in focus at Event) and Melbourne (slightly out of focus at the Forum) film festivals. That’s not a jibe at MIFF. Both festivals have theatres notorious for poor projection and a switch of venues (say, the Dendy in Sydney, and ACMI in Melbourne) could easily have seen the criticism reversed.* Regardless, while Vendetta films have cinematic distribution rights, The Assassin is most likely to turn up as a DVD release where focus is less likely to be a problem.
Set in 9th Century China during the Tang Dynysty, the visual splendour of Hou’s film contains half a dozen swordplay battles but most of them are fleeting. What will strike most people – particularly those expecting a wu xia film to be a series of martial arts smackdowns – is the languid pacing of The Assassin.
The dull, slow moving Asian art movie is a film festival cliché perpetuated by contemporary directors whose dreariness has been mistaken for profundity and have inspired a legion of digital dullards to lean heavily on the ‘film festival stare’ to give their work ‘style’. Cameras gape blankly, seemingly forever, at uninteresting scenes – often in long shots that inhibit emotional connection self-edited by low-budget auteurs who can’t bear to discard a second of their ‘vision’. At Busan, Hong Kong, Tokyo and other less significant Asian film festivals this technique is a veritable plague that can be traced back to Hou, the aforementioned grandmaster of Taiwanese cinema.
The difference has always been – whether it’s the breezy, ambling adventures of The Boys From Feng Kuei (1983) or the devastation of the dead grandmother in the A Time to Live, A Time to Die (1985) or any part of the rich tapestry of his masterwork City of Sadness (1989) – that unlike the red button film-makers of the new millennium, Hou’s films always did more than merely stare.
Hou’s steady, searching gaze explored stillness and always supplied enough visual information to warrant an extended shot and enough emotional substance to allow the audience time to excavate their own submerged feelings that the lingering shot is designed to trigger.
This may be a matter of taste – particularly to those who come to The Assassin seeking non-stop action. But unlike the many untalented emulators who have followed in his cinematic wake, Hou has never been a victim of stoned cameraman syndrome. This grandmaster of Taiwanese cinema always knew what he was looking at.
In The Assassin, the camera not only gazes but frequently scans with a glacial swaying technique that echoes the wafting curtains of gauze and silk that respond to the breezes that pass through the luxurious Weibo Palace, the home to the assassin’s proposed victim.
The beauty of The Assassin is not confined to the interiors. Several outdoor sequences from the fight in the birch tree forest (an homage to the bamboo forest battle in King Hu’s landmark wu xia A Touch of Zen), to a breathtaking climactic shot that takes place as a cloud embraces a mountain peak, are all stunning.
In amongst all of this exquisite camera movement and art direction, there are restrained performances and a story actually so simple that many find it too elusive to get a handle on. Admittedly, a couple of clarifications of relationships (mothers, siblings, step-brothers) in the subtitles would have helped, but in essence the story is: master assassin Yinniang (Shu Qi), after refusing to complete an assignment because a child was present, is punished by being sent to murder her cousin Ji’an (Chang Chen), a military governor to whom she was once betrothed. By murdering, Ji’an, who holds the keys to the Weibo kingdom, Yinniang will enable her mentor’s network of puppetmasters to maintain control of the region. As Yinniang equivocates, the manipulators try to force the same outcome by applying new pressures but the central question is the same: is Yinniang going to kill or not?
From the opening black and white scene, when Yinniang’s mentor instructs her to kill a man, to the finale around 100 minutes later, the feared assassin is faced with a moral choice. Like Hou’s cinema, taking a life of someone you loved is not something to be considered idly. Hou ensures that we take that time to consider.
*My spies tell me that MIFF’s second screening of The Assassin at The Comedy Theatre was crystal sharp.