Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin is unquestionably one of the most staggeringly beautiful films I have ever seen; in fact, so intricate are its period details and stunning its compositions that to simply label it “beautiful” does the film a disservice. It is also one of the slowest and most inscrutable, making it an especially bold choice for the NZIFF’s Centrepiece screening. Unlike Ang Lee, Zhang Yimou and even Wong Kar-wai before him, Hou’s foray into wuxia sees his elliptical style remain completely intact, which may prove maddening for fans of the genre. Cinéastes accustomed to the Taiwanese master’s quiet realism, however, will relish the way his years-in-the-making endeavour meticulously brings imperial China to vivid life.
Set during the decline of the Tang dynasty in 9th century China, the sparse-yet-complicated plot goes something like this: an exceptionally skilled assassin, Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), deemed too compassionate by her strict “Nun Princess” master (Sheu Fang-Yi), is sent back to the home she was exiled from 13 years ago with orders to kill Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen), a top military leader and the man to whom she was once betrothed. This synopsis reads like classic wuxia fare — a martial artist torn between duty and repressed love — but Hou’s film is so understated and uninterested in conventional storytelling that the narrative barely registers, leaving confused audience members to do the heavy lifting throughout.
There are occasional flashes of violence — the assassination of a corrupt Governor during the black-and-white prologue; a rooftop dalliance with Ji’an; a tense showdown with another female assassin — but these moments are fleeting, striking and vanishing just as quickly as Yinniang in action. Hou would rather focus on the period details, utilising his characteristic long takes dominated by silence to transfix us with scenes of servants elaborately preparing a bath, or traditional musical performances, or the constant beat of a drum during languorous conversation. The result is less a coherent wuxia film than a collection of obsessively researched, gorgeously designed and impeccably crafted moments that exist to immerse us in ancient China with a rarefied period realism. Hou is wonderfully aided by regular cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin, whose Academy ratio visuals are exquisite whether he’s shooting majestic silver birch trees swaying in the wind or the low-lit interiors of Ji’an’s residence. Hou favourite Shu Qi also does fine work here, delivering a performance of great restraint and conviction without the aid of close-ups.
As to whether or not this singular achievement of period realisation is enough to qualify The Assassin as some kind of masterpiece is debatable — many critics at Cannes deemed it one and enthusiastically predicted a Palme d’Or win (Hou ended up with Best Director) — but ultimately my experience couldn’t help but be diminished by the impenetrable plot. Too often I felt perplexed and detached, wishing for just a hint of narrative clarity and left to merely admire the aesthetic — but what a mesmerising aesthetic it is.
The Assassin is currently screening at the New Zealand International Film Festival.