The Assassin (2015); d. Hou Hsiao-Hsien

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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 Mambomy 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Chinese poster for “The Assassin”

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12 Responses to The Assassin (2015); d. Hou Hsiao-Hsien

  1. Regina Bartkoff says:

    Sheila You had me at “The visuals” and that poster! Also, I never heard of him!
    Intriguing review. I like that comparing it to going to a museum, I sometimes can only take in one painting and get wiped out. And what you say about beauty and that stuff about the combination of concentration and relaxation. Great stuff!

    • sheila says:

      Regina – yes – “wiped out”! That’s it exactly!

      About 3/4s of the way through The Assassin, I actually found myself getting drowsy. Not because I was bored – but because I think I was “wiped out”. I had to shake myself a bit, and then re-focus – just the same as happens in museums. Once I did, the whole thing felt even MORE profound.

      Interested to hear your thoughts!!

  2. mutecypher says:

    Just saw it. Very beautiful. I was surprised that the movie was framed at what looked like a 4:3 aspect ratio – but the images you show are at a more standard movie aspect ratio. Was the version you saw 4:3 or widescreen?

    There were many beautiful shots. I liked the image of the trees near the end of the black-and-white opening section – after Yinniang’s assassination: the aspens in the background all shaken by the wind while the ones in the foreground were calm.

    And I could have used a flow chart too, for characters and motivations.

    I also loved the playing of the zither and the story of the blue bird.

    • sheila says:

      Good call on aspect ratio – yes! My friend Keith Uhlich wrote a little bit about the technical aspects for Slant Magazine when he saw it at Toronto (I think – or maybe it was Cannes).

      The zither scene had some real grain in it, while other images – the panorama shots had a dream-like clarity – crystal-clear.

      I read some silly review talking about what a mess it was, and who was who, and why don’t they make us care, why doesn’t Hou tell us who is who … and I was like, Sigh. Come on. SOME films benefit from clarity. But it’s not a RULE that films must be one way. The greatest films in the world tend to break all the rules.

      I also loved that the most exciting fight – in the birch grove (my favorite scene) – was between two women.

      Very glad you saw it!!

      • sheila says:

        Here’s Keith (my X-files guide/mentor/partner-in-crime) on the film (and, incidentally, Jafar Panahi’s Taxi too) – but he talks about the aspect ratio.

        http://www.slantmagazine.com/house/article/toronto-international-film-festival-2015-introduction-the-assassin-and-taxi

        • mutecypher says:

          I didn’t notice the aspect ratio change during the zither scene – though I do recall thinking,”god, that instrument is so long and beautiful, and it looks like the actress is truly playing it.”

          And the fight in the birch (aspen?) woods was mysterious and striking, with the masked woman and then the breaking of the mask. I have to confess I am not sure who that character was.

          I also loved the preparation of the bath, with the buckets of hot water and the various ingredients being added. In a perverse way it made me think of the final season of Hannibal where Gillian Anderson’s Dr. Du Maurier remarks that Dr. Lector is feeding her various things so that she will taste just the way he wants her to. A similar lushness to the film and the TV series, but without the hideous/kinky tones in The Assassin. I think I will watch it again when it’s released for homes.

          • mutecypher says:

            //masked woman and then the breaking of the mask. //

            A shadow self and then Yinniang’s emancipation?

          • sheila says:

            // I have to confess I am not sure who that character was. //

            Me neither! I was walking down the stairs to the lobby after the movie, and two little old ladies were in front of me, and they were deep in discussion over who that character was. It was great! Because I was thinking the same thing. I was like, “Okay, so at least I’m not alone …”

            I don’t think it was the nun. They had different mouths. But maybe I’m missing something.

            I also loved how Hou just sat in that zither scene for a long long time. No cuts or anything. The scene took on its own meaning – I projected all kinds of things onto her face – I could have been making it up, I don’t know. But I loved how he resisted turning it into something explicit. It just WAS.

            Very sad scene in a way.

          • sheila says:

            and in re: shadow self:

            That occurred to me too. Their mouths were the same, too. I wondered if this was a version of her former self (court princess – the gold mask, the colorful silk robes – in contrast to her totally black boyish outfit). But I don’t know.

            and I checked the cast list on IMDB but it is not at all revealing – since there isn’t a “lady with gold mask” character listed.

  3. mutecypher says:

    When you do “official” reviews for Ebert or elsewhere, would you usually get press material explaining who characters are? “Tony Stark is a billionaire playboy philanthropist,” etc. Does that sort of thing vary from film to film?

    Since you do your best to ignore other reviews before writing your own, I imagine you always walk in as “in the dark” as us civilians.

    But are things like character and plot descriptions part of press packages that reviews get and could look at of they chose? I assume so, since one often reads the same phrases in different reviews of the same movie.

    • mutecypher says:

      pretend I can write grammatically. Time for more coffee.

    • sheila says:

      Sometimes you get a press packet, yeah. (I saw this in the movie theatre though). But even there – a character as small and as wordless as masked lady might not be mentioned. And there might be ZERO description of the plot. (Besides, Hou’s films are not about the plot anyway. If I described the plot of Millennium Mambo to anyone, the response would be: “That’s it?” So it’s not actually illuminating to have a plot described in press releases.)

      // I assume so, since one often reads the same phrases in different reviews of the same movie. //

      Well, that’s very bad. You should never quote the press package.

      Press packets are really helpful if they include directors’ statements, interviews with director about the project – but the best is the lengthy bios often included of everyone involved. IMDB is not reliable. Wikipedia is not reliable. You really need to triple-check everyone’s credits, and press packets are really helpful for that. Plus, any personal statement from the director – I’d always read that before going in.

      I actually don’t want to go in THAT “dark.” Context like that helps you “place” something, and knowing intentions is often quite helpful.

      Most reviews I’ve seen of this film talk only about the visuals, or – 90% about the visuals – and that seems to me entirely appropriate. In my opinion, there’s nothing else really to talk about.

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