On the Lookout
By Michael Koresky

The Assassin
Dir. Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan/China, Well Go USA

Hou Hsiao-hsien wants you to watch. That may sound like no revelation considering that we’re talking about one of the world’s greatest living visual artists, but the Taiwanese director invites a particular kind of active spectatorship that has also made him one of our most rigorous, mysterious, challenging, and rewarding filmmakers. In films such as Good Men, Good Women and Flowers of Shanghai and Flight of the Red Balloon, the viewer is at once asked to luxuriate in a minutely detailed filmic space (requiring a purely aesthetic sensibility) and follow the intricacies of plot, character, and history that flesh out and enliven those spaces (demanding a strict, close narrative reading). The experience can be odd, even discombobulating, especially for a spectator new to his particular brand of cinema: we float around and away from direct event and action, yet those events and actions are crucial to our understanding of why we’re floating—why we’re in this peculiar emotional state. This is a bold, highly modernist approach to narrative, devoid of handholding, discreetly positioning the viewer as the film’s central figure. It’s more than a matter of having to pay close attention: the films are nothing without our filling in their gaps. Hou’s latest, The Assassin, his first in the wuxia genre, is perhaps his most senses-heightening work yet, a film of simultaneous action and repose, of specificity and abstraction, giving the viewer just enough information to follow its dense narrative avenues while asking that their eyes take the road less traveled.

At any given moment during this opulent yet opaque period piece, set during the waning years of the Tang dynasty in the eighth century, a viewer might be concentrating on matters of Chinese history (knotty), or characters’ psychological motivations (obscured), or the way a woman’s bath is drawn (ritualistically), or how a blood-pink sky complements the tangle of dead winter tree branches that crisscross in front of it (perfectly), or how violence is dispatched in otherwise solemn settings (quickly). None of these matters can exist discretely or independently of the others; the experience is whole, and so aesthetically complete as to be overwhelming.

The film’s singular rhythmic approach is established early: Mark Lee Ping-bin’s languorous, drifting camera sets a deliberate pace, which is then occasionally disrupted by editor Huang Chih-chia’s quick bursts of movement. This shuttles the viewer from contemplation to shock and back again. Near the beginning of the film, during an exquisitely elliptical prologue in black and white, Hou lays the groundwork for his protagonist. Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi, whose extraordinary bee-stung pout was also featured prominently in the director’s Millennium Mambo and Three Times) is the title character, a trained killer under the instruction and influence of her master, an older woman dressed in white (Sheu Fang-yi), known as the “nun.” Our first sense of Yinniang’s formidable skill with a blade comes after the nun instructs her to take down a powerful governor she claims is a corrupt murderer. Hou cuts to Yinniang carrying out the killing, which occurs in a wooded area, with a razor-sharp, slow-motion slice across the neck, followed by the sound of a thud as the man falls to the ground and then immediately by a shot of tree blossoms caressed by a light breeze. Another incongruously lyrical image: an interior scene of a little boy trying to catch a butterfly, while being admired by his father and a host of servants. The camera drifts away as the child settles for playing with a ball instead, and just as we’re lulled into a state of repose, Yinniang, who has clearly been perching in wait, jumps down from the rafters. After an amazing cut, we see the child splayed out, his father mourning over his now limp body. His anger building, he throws a sword at Yinniang, still in the room somehow; she easily knocks the blade away and calmly exits. We never find out who these targets are, or who they were, and what their relationship was to Yinniang or her master, yet their presences hang over the film. By abstracting them, Hou sets Yinniang’s status as a dispatcher of vaguely defined vengeance, and we’re instantly put in the position of wondering how any of this—especially the death of a child—could be at all necessary. We’re only a few minutes into the film, and we’re already questioning the morality and motivation of the violence we’re seeing, and so much of that has to do with cinematography and cutting, presence and absence, sound and silence.

A reminder that he is indeed a showman, if an often barely perceptible one, Hou gifts us a restrained yet glorious cut to color as the narrative proper begins, an image of serene nature that feels new for the director, who more often shoots interiors and urban landscapes. Yinniang has been dispatched to Weibo, which has grown into the strongest of the provinces that have fought for independence from the Tang Empire. The nun has ordered her to kill Weibo’s governor, Tian J’ian (Chang Chen), who also happens to be her cousin. Further complicating matters is the fact that former general’s daughter Yinniang was once betrothed to Tian J’ian, before her parents sent her away to train with her master, who, it is revealed, is her mother’s twin sister. The remainder of the film circles complicatedly around these matters, refraining from direct character psychologizing, preferring instead to allow the emotions of the situation to arise through the tiniest of cinematic gestures. For instance, Hou treats a crucial exposition scene as another chance for solemnly abstract expressionism. Here, Hou stages a nighttime conversation between Tian J’ian and his wife, Lady Tian (Zhou Yun)—in which it’s revealed that he has discovered that the assassin on his trail is his cousin, and he details the political reasons for their parents promising them to one another in marriage—with a drifting camera set behind a gently wavering, sheer curtain in the extreme foreground, which serves to subtly cloud the image and distort and expand the dots of candlelight throughout the frame. At one point well into the scene, Hou cuts to a surprise reverse angle of Yinniang, lurking behind a billowing curtain. Has she been watching the whole time? If we were to see this scene as motivated by the perspective of our ostensible protagonist, then we would have to view her as an active, psychological presence. However, Yinniang is more of a ghost figure than a flesh-and-blood character, a woman (crucially) who seems not to exist in this world, a homeless, wandering warrior slowly cutting all her ties to her past.

With its slowly floating camera and interior scenes diffused in golden light, The Assassin often recalls Flowers of Shanghai, albeit with short bursts of violent action. It’s in the fight scenes, and the way they’re dispatched, that The Assassin most distinguishes itself as a challenge to genre conventions. The film’s skirmishes come so fast and unexpectedly, and so often after moments of visual meditation—such as, in one case, Lady Tian moving quietly through a field with her ladies in waiting—that it’s as though the action is smashing into the frame. There are traditional wuxia touches (in at least one fight scene Yinniang is seen floating down through the air with gravity-defying ease) and there is even a late-breaking hint of the supernatural (a mysterious weaver of black magic casts a spell on Lady Tian). But Hou’s film is less concerned with slotting in genre trappings than finding ways of abstracting them so that they become ingredients with no greater supremacy over the whole than, say, the way embroidered silk looks in low, golden lighting or how a towering row of huge, mossy mountains dwarf the humans who walk through them or the eerie beauty of torch-lit caravan passing through a pitch-dark cave. Even a flashback scene shot in a wider aspect ratio—the film is almost entirely in 1.33:1—is more of a subtly emotional opening out than a flourish that calls attention to itself. There are no standalone set pieces in a Hou film, just elements folded into an immersive whole.

There’s a lot of back story and historical contextualizing throughout The Assassin, yet Hou doesn’t deploy any of it for matters of mere elucidation. Much of it comes through in shards, or in a backwards manner, so that we’re getting pieces of narrative rather than full expository moments and receiving information before we know entirely what is being referred to (one specific instance involving a character who fakes menstruation with chicken blood is particularly striking). This can make for an initially confounding experience, but only if the viewer is struggling valiantly to follow one particular thread. A recurring image in the film shows a second female assassin, seemingly dissociated from the main plot, dressed in red and donning a golden mask that obscures her identity; she seems there more for visual impact than narrative purpose. The second time we see this mysterious person, she and Yinniang engage in a sudden and very brief set-to, bookended by becalmed shots of nature, including an eerily beautiful composition of clouds accumulating behind bare branches. In a Film Comment interview with Aliza Ma, Hou reveals this character has a name, Jing Jing’er, and a purpose: “I wanted to show the fact that the Yuan family married their daughter to the Tian family in order to seize power in Weibo, so the wife was actually a matchless assassin too.” As far as I can tell, there is no possible way the audience would glean this from the events that unfold onscreen. This is perhaps the point. We see what we are allowed to see.

Questions remain when the film ends, about the characters’ futures as well as larger historical ones. As one scene near the end shows, the negotiations and internecine conflicts between the provinces that fuel the film simply continue unabated. Meanwhile, Yinniang has proven her worth, but defiantly not in the way her master demanded. Like Hou, she instructs us that what matters most might not be the thing you’re looking for, the mission you’re on, or even the end of your trail.