TIFF15: The Assassin

I shouldn’t have eaten popcorn during The Assassin. Each crunch I took was magnified in the quiet theatre in contrast to the exceptional stillness of Taiwanese arthouse master Hou Hsiao-hsien’s exquisite compositions.

If Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon brought an art film aesthetic to the wuxia genre, The Assassin is an art film set in Tang-dynasty-era China that contains some martial arts. Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger and its lofty successors, particularly the films of Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers), may have acquired arthouse prestige, but they were also capable of satisfying martial arts film enthusiasts. If my experience in the movie theatre was any assurance, The Assassin is likely to alienate anyone expecting a familiar martial arts historical epic.

The Assassin is an art film through and through. Everything is played for maximum ambiguity, the narrative is loose and elliptical, the beauty of individual shots is valued for its own sake. All of this should probably be expected if one is familiar with Hou’s body of work though. In any case, alienating the viewer seems to be one of the artistic aims of The Assassin.  

The opening is shot in Academy ratio black and white. These early scenes establish the dominant pattern for the film: long takes of nearly static compositions that fade to black. With the opening title—which is superimposed over a long, wide shot of ducks swimming in a misty pond at dusk—the film switches to colour. Occasionally a wider frame rate is used, such as when a woman plays the zither.

I call her “a woman” because I’m not entirely sure who the character is. From what I can tell, the main assassin girl was sent away to be raised by the mysterious “nun-priestess” when her marriage to a provincial warlord was broken off. Now she has been sent back to assassinate the lord. The usual conflict between the imperial court and the provinces comes up. The identity of characters and their relations to each other only slowly emerge over the course of the film, as if a fog is slowly evaporating from the narrative—as fogs and mists so often do in the film’s long, still shots.

Hou loves anything that obscures what we see. I’ve already mentioned the fogs and mists. In one intimate scene between the lord and his mistress, the camera looks through the veil of a curtain, thereby defeating the intimacy. Hou seems intent on limiting our connection to the characters. Medium long shots are the standard distance. Close-ups are rare. The acting is “naturalistic,” sometimes to the point of being deadpan. Characters frequently recite past event in long takes. Obscurity, both visually and narratively, dominates the film.

My experience of watching The Assassin, a beautiful yet boring film, made me think of French New Wave films like Breathless and Band of Outsiders. Godard and company loved American detective films, and while their films clearly bear inspirations from the genre and are novel, artful films, they kind of suck as a detective movies.  

The same can be said for Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin. The Assassin is a bad martial arts movie. It has other merits though—the gorgeous vertical compositions that resemble Chinese paintings, the attention to historical detail in the costumes and sets, the way visual obscurities suggest the murky justifications and shadowy operations of assassination. There is much to admire here, but just as Hou cuts short many of the fight scenes, his distancing aesthetic consistently defeats the subject matter and story. And that just might be the point.

5 out of 10

The Assassin (2015, Taiwan/China/Hong Kong/France)

Directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien; written by Hou Hsiao-hsien, Chu Tien-wen, Hsieh Hai-meng, and Zhong Acheng; starring Shu Qi, Chang Chen, Zhou Yun, and Satoshi Tsumabuki.

The Assassin played at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival.