Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien is considered one of the world’s greatest among the cognoscenti of the international festival circuit, though he remains largely unknown even to art-house audiences in the United States. The Assassin, his first feature in eight years, should go some way to changing that.
Combining Hou’s patient, observant style with a historical martial arts tale, the film is a fascinating hybrid of craft, genre and story. Beautiful to look at and with deeply felt emotions, the film has a meditative aura punctured by sharp bouts of fighting.
Set in ninth century China, The Assassin follows a young woman named Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), who is taken from her family and trained as an assassin by a nun, Jiaxin (Sheu Fang-yi). Yinniang is sent back to her home province with an order to kill the governor, Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen), to whom she was once engaged. Within the film’s delicate emotional dynamics, a slight gesture causing a rustle of fabric can be felt as deeply as a fist or a blade.
Yinniang spends much of her time watching Tian Ji’an’s court while weighing her decision of what is best for herself, for the province and even for her target. In the lead role, Shu is a powerful presence, able to convey inner conflict and outer strength, which makes the character a fascinating enigma. This makes the film as much about waiting and observing as it is about fighting. The Assassin is an action film in which much of the intensity and conflict comes from the decision of whether to take action.
The difficulty of Yinniang’s decision, observing a life that might have been hers while contemplating whether to complete her mission, creates a pungently bittersweet sadness and air of regret that can be felt even in the fight scenes, giving them the emotional resonance of a stylized dance.
With costumes and set design by Hwarng Wern-Ying and cinematography by Hou’s longtime director of photography, Mark Lee Ping Bing, the film has a fine, filigreed beauty. It’s like looking inside a jewel box. Many sets were built not on soundstages but out-of-doors so that natural light could be used.
The stunning landscapes, most in northeast China, are rough and rugged, but with an undercurrent of etched delicacy. A climactic confrontation between Yinniang and Jiaxin occurs on the edge of a cliff as a fog rolls in and envelops them. Much like The Assassin overall, the scene’s combination of majesty and mystery seems nothing short of magic.
Cast: Shu Qi, Chang Chen, Zhou Yun, Satoshi Tsumabuki, Juan Ching-tian.
Director: Hou Hsiao-hsein.
Screenwriters: Hou Hsiao-hsein, Chu Tien-wen, Hsieh Hai-meng, Zhong Acheng.
A Well Go USA release. Running time: 105 minutes. Violence. Opens Friday Oct. 30 in Miami-Dade: Tower, Miami Beach Cinematheque; in Broward: Cinema Paradiso Hollywood.