Hou Hsiao-hsien’s most recent work is the anti-action film, with aesthetics and technical mastery taking precedence over narrative or meaning.
Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s most recent film, The Assassin, was the darling of the 2015 festival circuit, winning the award for Best Director at Cannes, as well as topping many best-of lists, including Sight and Sound’s. There’s always the danger that a film so critically praised won’t meet the high expectations of its general audience, and that is certainly, and problematically, the case with this martial arts period drama.
Opening with a black and white prologue followed by a transition to colour, The Assassin tells the tale of a woman, taken from her home as a young girl to be trained as an assassin. After her feelings lead her to fail in a mission, she is sent back to her province to remove its powerful governor (Tian Ji’an, played by Chang Chen), who is also her cousin as well as former fiancé. But while Nie Yinniang is a deadly killer, superbly trained by her mistress (who, we later learn, is also her vengeful aunt), she is too independent, too compassionate, to blindly follow her orders, and her mission is muddied by emotional and familial entanglements.
Hou Hsiao-hsien’s version of wuxia is sumptuously shot by cinematographer Ping Ben Lee, capturing nature in all its glory, and with a voluptuous indulgence given to its 9th-century royal setting. Nie Yinniang is a stunning figure, with her long black hair, her stark clothes, providing a contrast to the luxuries enjoyed by her enemies. But while beautifully played by Shu Qi, the assassin is allowed only brief moments of (admittedly brilliant) intensity in the movie’s few fight scenes. The film, a chain of tableaux vivants that all fade to black, is glacially paced, and Nie Yinniang is too often merely an object of beauty, a still figure standing amidst meticulously staged backdrops.
The intricacies of the story are bewildering, with the ‘who’ and the ‘why’ only obliquely revealed as the film lingers on. But rather than lending The Assassin an air of intrigue, these mysteries seem pointlessly and frustratingly obtuse, with the most potent symbolism left to be teased out of a broken piece of jade, while not enough is done to bring the characters to life, to make them whole. Hou Hsiao-hsien deliberately avoids giving its audience any of the pleasures of wuxia, but its take on the genre offers little, and feels like a pale shadow of fellow auteur Wong Kar Wai’s Ashes of Time.
And perhaps that’s not the context in which to view the film, and it shouldn’t be sold as such to audiences. The Assassin is the anti-action film, with aesthetics and technical mastery taking precedence over narrative or meaning. It looks gorgeous, but there’s a shallowness to its beauty. The Assassin, unfortunately, is more still life than cinema.
Watch the trailer: