The visuals are, quite literally, overwhelming. There were shots that were so beautiful I practically could not take it in, in one glance: it’s like trying to “take in” the Grand Canyon. Thankfully, Hou’s camera is not of the quick-cut variety. He lets scenes breathe, and the shots are very long. I had time to settle in, to look up at the misty ranks of mountains in the background, the vast space in the foreground, the line of trees reflected perfectly in the dawn-blue water, the row of fog breaking up a vertical cliff of green trees. Nature photography? Well, yes, kind of. But it’s part of the story and the atmosphere. This is one of the most beautiful looking films this year, or any year.
Hou Hsiao-Hsien is such a world-class visionary filmmaker (the hyperbole fits) and yet it’s been relatively rare that his stuff makes it to our shores. The Assassin won him the Best Director award at Cannes, thrilling news for those of us who love his work and were already eagerly anticipating The Assassin. (The trailers were so evocative: they told little about the film, and yet the images!!)
The Assassin takes place in Weibo, a province in 9th century China during a time of major unrest. Garrison guards gallop through the landscape, holding up fluttering flags in a martial display of power. There’s intrigue, political wrangling, fear. The story centers around Yinniang (Shu Qui, who has worked with Hou three times now. She played a completely different kind of character in Millennium Mambo – my review here). Yinniang was sent away from her family when she was a child to study with Jiaxin, a nun (Sheu Fang-yi). The nun may be a nun but she is also a ferocious martial arts trainer, and has devoted 10 years or so in training Yinniang to be an assassin. Of the deadly ninja variety. You never see her coming. By the time her face is revealed, it’s too late.
The Assassin opens in black-and-white, with Jiaxin and Yinniang standing by a grove of trees staring off into the distance. They don’t move and you don’t see what they are looking at. Jiaxin murmurs an instruction to Yinniang. When the assassination comes, it is so graceful, balletic, and terrifying that it’s hard to even perceive what has happened. She’s so smooth about it. Her next job requires her to take out a local warlord, but when she approaches him in his tent, she sees him sleeping with his young son. She is unable to complete the task. Jiaxin is concerned about Yinniang’s lack of resolve, as well as her lingering feelings for humanity, so she ups the ante. To prove herself, Yinniang must return to her family home and kill her cousin, a man she was betrothed to as a child. Yinniang is devastated, although she has been trained so well her face remains seemingly blank as a mask. But her horror at the assignment is there, quivering throughout her.
That’s the set-up. The return to Weibo introduces us to the Court from which Yinniang was exiled. There’s Lord Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen), the governor of Weibo, and the man she has been sent to kill. They have not seen one another since they were children. There’s also Xia Jing (Juan Ching-tian), a guy who speaks up angrily in a political meeting, and is exiled as a result. It’s a spark that explodes the plot forward.
Yinniang is welcomed home in a solemn ceremony involving a scented bath and a gorgeous court-dress made for her by her mother. As an assassin she wears a long black coat, black leather pants, sturdy boots with upturned toes, her hair halfway down her back, and a little knife stuck through the bun on the top of her head. She is a fearsome figure. Seeing her in luscious gorgeous gowns, or naked weeping in the tub, reminds us of her humanity, the childhood she missed out on, the normal womanhood she will never have, and etc. and etc. She is a trained murderer. When she walks, she makes no sound. Her stride is long and confident, unlike the delicate steps made by the ladies of the court. She is a woman without a home, without a family, without even really a homeland. She is an independent contractor. It puts her in a place of isolation, a solitary figure, the symbol of exile.
Isolation and exile, having a foot in both worlds (which means really having a foot in no world) are common themes to Hou Hsiao-Hsien. Yinniang belongs everywhere. She belongs nowhere.
These are the bare bones. But one does not go see a Hou film looking for clarity, or linear narrative structures that one recognizes. His films are dream-spaces. Subjective. Subjective to the characters in the story (the backgrounds so blurred out in Millennium Mambo, making the outside world seem indistinct), but also subjective to Hou’s vision. He does things the way he wants to do them. He seems to feel no outside pressure. The Assassin is set up like a classic martial arts movie and there are some tremendous fight sequences. But they don’t come when you think they should come, they don’t last as long (or as short) as you might expect, and there is almost no gore. The fights are dazzling and acrobatic, the sounds of the swords slashing through the air. They take place in the dead of night on slanted rooftops, or in the midst of a birch grove tilting on the side of a hill. There is a ritualistic aspect to it. Sometimes the purpose is not to kill. But to warn. To reveal. To frighten and intimidate.
The plot is byzantine and twisted. It is confusing and there were moments when I wished for a flow-chart of characters to keep them straight. That confusion is not a mistake, or an error on the film-maker’s part. He is after something different than clarity. He always is. His films require patience. His style is his own. It’s slow. The camera stays on one thing for long periods of time. You must settle in. There’s an entire scene (stunning to witness) showing two characters talking in their tent, with sheer curtains billowing all around them. The scene is the wordiest in the entire film. The couple, man and woman, talk about things, holding onto one another. Often they are filmed from behind one layer of those sheer curtains, so the image becomes fuzzy, smudged. Then, suddenly, that smudgy filmy layer will blow back, showing us the interior with vivid clarity. Then, again, though, the curtain falls back over the camera. The scene is a long one, and there are times when you can see the assassin, standing amongst those wavering filmy curtains … listening. Sometimes she’s there, you can see her, sometimes it takes a second to even perceive her presence, she’s so camouflaged.
The film is so visually ravishing that every single shot – every single one – is a “keeper.” It’s overwhelming. In that environment of nearly rapt beauty, dizzying, as though one is on a hallucinogenic, the “confusion” of the plot becomes irrelevant. That confusion is part of the inter-connected treacherous family world of The Assassin. Everyone is connected. Even the assassin, although she has been thrust outside that close circle. Dangerous times. Plots happen in a whisper in the space just beyond the camera. Men race through compounds holding up torches. A princess sits outside in the garden, still as a statue, her face composed, playing a zither, slowly, eerily. Each image chosen for its impact, and yet never in a flashy way. The images sit there onscreen, for a long time. And what that pacing does is it forces you to DEAL with beauty. You have to sit there and take it, in other words. There are times in museums when I start to feel “Overload.” That’s when I have to sit down on a bench, take a break, and re-group. I can’t just keep going, because I have reached a saturation level. But it is when you pick yourself up off the bench, refreshed, and go back to looking at the Masterworks on the wall, that deeper truths are revealed, the paintings can speak to you in all kinds of ways, your subconscious is activated.
That kind of LOOKING requires a certain brain-space, both alert and dreamy. It’s like the flashes of insight that crack through your brain right before you fall asleep. Your brain is unleashed, unfettered from “reality” and any limitations that that might suggest. You do what Emily Dickinson says, you “dwell in possibility.” But that can only occur once you submit, and submitting is sometimes a rigorous process. You have to WANT to do it. You have to train yourself to do it. The head-space is a mixture of concentration and relaxation, a heady blend, that does not come natural to humans, who tend to do one or the other, separately. Beauty, at its most powerful, demands that you respond with both, simultaneously.
A film like The Assassin leads you into that brainspace, from one image to the next. Each one perfect, eloquent, evocative. You are given TIME with each one. Settle into it. Let your brain off its leash.
Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s films are about many things. The Assassin has a big gigantic complicated plot with a lot of characters. But mainly, his films are about the visuals, and the dream-space opened up by submitting to them. It’s challenging work but tremendously gratifying on a really primal level. The level of dreams.
Beauty is beauty, right? Beauty is supposedly benign and good. True, true. But beauty can also be ominous, fearsome, portentous. It is not just a backdrop. Beauty is not “pretty,” an insipid term. Angels of the Lord are beautiful but nobody wants to see one in the flesh … because that would mean, probably, that you are either dead or near-dead. Hou Hsiao-Hsien works with beauty, respects it, prioritizes it, swims in it. He is an extremely careful film-maker, every element onscreen reflecting his vision. You don’t get the sense anywhere that he has ever compromised anything in his life. He probably has, but that sense is not in his movies. His films ooze with beauty, in ways destabilizing, satisfying, mysterious.
The Assassin is in theaters now. It should be seen on the big screen. I realize it’s probably only playing in art-houses. Seek it out while it’s still here.