MIFF 2015: The Assassin

The slow, consistent beat of a drum in the distance. A series of effervescent frames, obscured by curtains and flickering flames. The delicate plucking of a guqin, strings reverberating in the stillness and quietude. Characters who speak in whispers and engage in long, hypnotic rituals. Breathtaking, overwhelming beauty with every image and edit. Yep, Taiwan’s premier slow cinema director Hou Hsiao-Hsien is back with The Assassin, his ten-years-in-the-making wuxia epic. In reality though, epic doesn’t even begin to describe what unfolds.

Ever since his breakout 1985 film A Time to Live, A Time to Die (I use the term breakout in the loosest sense possible), Hou Hsiao-Hsien has been at the forefront of the Taiwanese New Wave – a collective of filmmakers who sought to re-energise Taiwan’s national cinema through an engagement with the nation’s turbulent past, ever-shifting identity and a formal experimentation based around long takes, minute drama and documentary-influenced realism.

Since those early days, along with contemporaries Edward Yang and Tsai Ming-Liang, Hou Hsiao-Hsien has crafted a body of work that stands out as one of the most consistent and evocative of any director in the history of cinema. He is one of the medium’s most unsung heroes, a true artist whose attempts to push the craft into unknown territories coincide with his insights into collective trauma and personal narratives. The Assassin falls in line effortlessly with his past films and yet also miraculously treads new ground for the veteran director; it’s his first foray into the action genre, more specifically the wuxia.

It’s an odd card to play so late in his career, particularly considering that the Hollywood wave of wuxia occurred at least 10 years ago, with Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Zhang Yimou’s Hero being the standouts from that period. The landscape of Chinese cinema has changed dramatically since this period, with the nation now having a major vote even in Hollywood’s top tier output, a notion that Hou Hsiao-Hsien has had to directly contend with.

What is most strange about The Assassin though, prior to actually seeing the film, is the way in which it appears not to avoid synergy with Hou’s typical cinematic ethos. The wuxia film, traditionally, is one of movement and action; frenetic cuts, energised fight sequences and choreographed synchronicity.

In contrast, minimalism, temporality and space are the key factors of Hou’s work, and have been for many years, so it’s jarring initially to try to comprehend how the director and genre will peacefully conjoin. Cast all doubt aside though, because The Assassin is genre deconstruction at its finest, even most damning. Hsiao-Hsien’s voice here becomes a light that shines through the dust, as he breaks down the framework of the wuxia genre to reveal the violence and vengeance at its core.

Taking place during the Tang Dynasty, the film explores the tensions behind a rogue state named Weibo, who reject the authority of the Emperor and have developed their own court of opposition led by Tian Ji’an (a devilish and contemplative Chang Chen). Tian Ji’an also happens to be the once-promised husband (and cousin) of the assassin in question, Yinniang, here played by Hou’s bewitching muse Shu Qi. Yinniang has been living rurally since she was young, training to become a flawless executioner, and has returned to assassinate Tian Ji’an in an effort to both avenge her exile and flatten the military region he rules over.

Following the plot of The Assassin comes very low on the list when considering how one enjoys this film, as its narrative exists as an act of purposeful bewilderment. What’s essential to the narrative though is the sense that conflict and war run through these characters like blood through veins, with most decisions and actions resulting in violence, if not death. Unlike most other wuxia films, The Assassin treats violence not as spectacle, but rather as ethical dilemma.

The first real fight sequence occurs when Yinniang emerges on Tian Ji’an’s property, spotted by his son, and is attacked by a series of guards. Hou rests his camera here at a solid distance, viewing the fight as an onlooker. It’s highly reminiscent of moments in his masterpiece A City of Sadness. Here, violence is too terrible to view up close. As the film teases out other sequences of potential bloodshed, the glacial pace of The Assassin gives way to a few moments of wound-up tension that Hou abruptly cuts away from when the fights become traditionally active.

Similarly, in an early sequence, Yinniang struggles to assassinate someone because of the compassion she feels when she witnesses him with his son, an act in stark opposition to what one might consider an assassin’s code of conduct to be. Yinniang here, and at the film’s conclusion, is a conduit for Hou’s own moral self, manifesting in a rejection of violence, vengeance and war. It’s obvious as to why he would adopt such a stance when considering Taiwan’s contemporary history of war and genocidal violence, something the director has been wrestling with his whole career, and the fact that he uses genre subversion to make his point is even more powerful.

It also helps that The Assassin is beautiful, comprising of some of the most transfixing images on screen since In the Mood for Love (statistically the most beautiful film ever made). Hou’s painterly images worship both the landscape of China and the intimacy of human relations in ways that combat the violence that surrounds their very existence. There are a handful of moments where the film opens up to a widescreen format, the subtlest of which might be of a simple image of a flower. Asking why is irrelevant when experiencing the feeling of the moment melting off the screen.

Therein lies the point of Hou’s cinema: an attempt to dislocate the art form from its movement-orientated shackles into something more ephemeral and temporal. His long takes, as stunning as they are aesthetically, also allow for a more active experience with the image; they reverberate within our bodies. Sequences of ritual and repetition frequently flood his frames.

In The Assassin they consist of servants preparing a bath, a father play-fighting with his son or any series of conversations that play out with patience and tension. Time is of utmost essence all of Hou’s films, The Assassin included, and through a direct experience of uninterrupted behaviour and process, greater political and social ideas are explored. Small moments flower outward and give meaning to larger problems, a process that allows for balance and contemplation over forced meaning and manipulation.

It’s all imprinted on the melancholy of Yinniang’s face, a woman forced into a warrior’s armour and asked to commit crimes against her own moral compass. At one point Tian Ji’an’s wife says, “I feel for Yinniang”, a sentiment of empathy rarely afforded to characters in neither the action nor the wuxia genres. Hou’s wuxia is overflowing with empathy, both for its characters and for a humanity that can only act within the boundaries of bloodshed. Well worth the lengthy wait to get here, The Assassin is yet another immersive, meditative revolution from the Taiwanese master.

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