Hou Hsiao-hsien’s first film in eight years was also his first foray into the wuxia genre. With The Assassin, he joins other top-tier auteurs like John Woo, Wong Kar Wai, Ang Lee, Zhang Yimou, and Jia Zhangke in revisiting the Chinese tradition of swordplay and knight-errantry, popularised in the cinema by King Hu with classics like Dragon Gate Inn (1967) and A Touch of Zen (1971). Hou’s addition to the canon takes place during the 9th century Tang Dynasty and follows assassin Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi). Abducted and trained by the nun, Jiaxin (Sheu Fang-yi), Yinniang becomes a killer, taking out the country’s corrupt politicians with surgical precision at her master’s bidding. But in The Assassin’s opening scene, Yinniang allows one of her marks to live, abandoning her mission when she sees him playing with his young son.
Her next assignment seems to be selected to punish and harden her as much as to eliminate a deserving target when Jiaxin sends her to kill her cousin and the governor of Weibo Province, Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen). In addition to their familial bond, Tian and Yinniang were once sweethearts, betrothed until a political alliance led to Tiang marrying another woman (Zhou Yun).
Yet on some level, describing the plot of The Assassin risks overshadowing the greater effect of the film. With sudden temporal shifts and convoluted political machinations that are not fully developed, it is not always easy to follow. Hou keeps us at arm’s length, even staging many shots so as to rob us of a direct line of sight on the action. We watch Tiang and his concubine (Hsieh Hsin-ying) through flowing curtains, not fully obscuring the characters and actions, but giving us a sense that we are intruders, stealing only brief glimpses of the full picture. He similarly pans away from characters in mid-sentence – never fully interrupting them as such, but allowing our attention to wander, briefly taking in settings and other characters. At the other extreme, he includes several of his his signature long shots (already familiar to his loyal audiences), meandering as he follows minor characters, captures musical asides, or composes static tableaux that briefly halt the action. Hou even employs guwen (Classical Chinese), both situating his characters firmly in history and giving himself the added challenge of a “foreign” language with less expressive potential. “It had a much smaller vocabulary, and did not communicate emotional subtleties easily,” he said in an interview in Film Comment. “Language was more basic back then.”1
The sparse dialogue and narrative confusion are not as alienating as they might seem. With little to communicate orally, the actors showcase their talents in other ways. “The actors had to practice how to draw out the emotional nuances in their performances with their bodies and faces, because they couldn’t rely on the dialogue,” said Hou.2 Qi in particular reflects an impressive balance of stony resolve and growing inner conflict. And the film is, perhaps above all else, stunningly beautiful and may well be Hou’s best work visually. Mountains and forests flirt with sublimity, while the photography of long-time Hou collaborator Mark Lee Ping Bin captures the extravagant colours and textures of the film’s breathtaking costumes and architecture. The colours are all the more dramatic when compared to the opening scene, shot entirely in black and white. For Jordan Cronk, this introduction “efficiently outlines the narrative’s deceptively simple dramatic impetus.”3 But it does more than this: rather than reveal the simplicity of the plot, the shift from black and white to lush, sumptuous colour reveals the complexity of many of The Assassin’s thematic foci. It introduces the notion of contrast that underpins much of the film – and is subverted at every turn. Hou presents us with many binaries: honour/corruption, love/hate, guilt/innocence, enemy/ally. But he does this to consistently stray into the messy middle ground, where allegiances are tested, promises are broken, and where a straightforward assassination is complicated by a shared past.
At one point Jiaxin says to Yinniang, “Your skill is matchless, but your mind is hostage to human sentiments.” For all her willingness to kill, Yinniang does show respect for the impact of her actions, and draws lines where she feels they need to be drawn. She kills on command, but her targets are corrupt, and she falters at the sight of the innocence of a child at play. These moral grey areas – or ranges of colour, as the film codes them – humanise Yinniang, and give her a sense of honour. She is no petty criminal or heartless killer.
Yinniang’s moral code – coupled with her expert swordsmanship – is the strongest marker of wuxia. The wuxia film features a sense of honour with principled motives and a devotion to justice that is divorced from class or social standing, but instead relies on belonging to a cult of the sword.4 We see this religious dimension in the figure of the nun and the extreme, almost ritualistic devotion of Yinniang to her craft, and even in her lost faith. As a woman, Yinniang is also a continuation of the figure of the female knight errant emphasised by King Hu throughout his career.5
While Hou has had a rich and varied career, he stretches into a new direction with The Assassin. In some ways, it is his most traditional film, as it fits so neatly into a specific generic history. And yet he makes wuxia feel new, and makes it his own. The action of wire fighting on display in the films of King Hu and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000) are here replaced by a profound sense of restraint. Hou withholds action and explicit violence bar a few notable exceptions that are strengthened by their rarity. The Assassin is remarkably original, and Hou proves the potential and versatility of one of China’s oldest narrative traditions with his latest, fresh addition.
Nie yin niang (The Assassin 2015 Taiwan/China 105 mins)
Prod. Co: SpotFilms Co., Ltd., Central Motion Picture Corporation, Sil-Metropole Organisation Ltd. Prod: Hou Hsiao-hsien, Liao Ching-Song Dir: Hou Hsiao-hsien Scr: Zhong Acheng, T’ien-wen Chu, Hou Hsiao-Hsien Phot: Mark Lee Ping Bin Mus: Lim Giong
Cast: Shu Qi, Chang Chen, Sheu Fang-yi, Zhou Yun, Hsieh Hsin-Ying, Tsumabuki Satoshi, Ni Da-Hong, Yong Mei, Lei Zhen-Yu, Ethan Huan
- Qtd. in Aliza Ma, “Killer Technique,” Film Comment (September/October 2015), http://www.filmcomment.com/article/hou-hsiao-hsien-interview/ ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Jordan Cronk, “The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan),” Cinema Scope, http://cinema-scope.com/spotlight/the-assassin-hou-hsiao-hsien-taiwan/ ↩
- Stephen Teo, Chinese Martial Arts Cinema: The Wuxia Tradition (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009), p. 4, 18. ↩
- Ibid. 115. ↩