Films like The Assassin, Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s new Tang Dynasty period piece, do not come along too often. Shot in the long out of vogue Academy Ratio and light on dialogue, it is a martial arts movie that does not feature much martial arts. Telling the story of Yinniang (Shu Qi), a young assassin tasked with the culling of corrupt government officials by her mentor and mother figure Jiaxin. Yinniang is an unnaturally skilled swordswoman and killer, but has developed the habit of showing compassion when her charge is at the mercy of her blade. In an attempt to harden her heart and make her a true master of her craft, Jiaxin dispatches her to the province of Weibo in order to kill Tian Ji’an, the circuit’s governor, who happens to be Yinniang’s cousin and former betrothed.
The Assassin moves at a stately pace, with Hou and cinematographer Lee Ping Bin drinking in the scenery with deep, satisfying relish. From its opening prologue in black and white through its explosions of color in both setting and costume, the film never provides anything less than pure cinematic beauty. It often feels like a loosely connected series of paintings with long establishing shots of nature as its connective tissue. The stillness of it all is pointed, establishing a sort of eerie calm from which quick explosions of action explode forth, shattering the delicate balance of it all. There is hardly any non-diegetic score for much of the film, and when it does arrive, it often creeps into the back of the mind, seeming to appear out of nowhere as it leisurely strolls into the sound mix, which is more noticeably dominated by rustling trees, shuffling sandals on hardwood slats, and the occasional flashing and clashing of steel.
Yianning moves with the inhuman gliding grace of the sort of wire-work martial arts films that gained short prominence in America with the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The Assassin features nothing as baldly ostentatious as the bamboo forest fight from that film, but it does provide a lovely measure of contrast. Yianning’s movements are so counter to the languid pace of the rest of the film that she seems like some otherworldly ghost haunting Weibo province, the only person going at normal speed while the rest of the world is mired in quicksand. This is a lush world of bright colors and opulence contrasted against solemn forests.
The bona fides of the technical aspects of The Assassin are peerless. It is a profoundly beautiful film, one with universal visual pleasures. Its story, however, leaves more than a little to be desired. The script (credited to Hou Hsiaso-Hsien, Chu T’ein-wen, Hsieh Hai-Meng and Zhong Acheng) is light on exposition, and dialogue in general, and seems to weigh heavily on at least some natural understanding of Chinese governmental structure. This is not to say the story is impossible to follow (this is not a David Lynch film, after all), but there is an unassailable sense of distance and coldness that shrouds the narrative. It is perhaps most akin to the experience of seeing a foreign language opera; the plot can be discerned through visuals and context clues even if the individual moments are impenetrable. The result is some difficulty in fully giving oneself over to the film, becoming lost in the world Hou Hsiao-Hsien has constructed. Thus the experience is most enjoyable on more of an academic level than an emotional one, studying the composition of the shots and the effectiveness of the sound design without becoming one with it.
This is not meant to be considered a slight against The Assassin, even if its opacity does knock it down a peg or two. What lingers in the mind as the credits (paired with a propulsive marching drums score) roll is the sumptuous cinematography and production design, the depth of frame, the elegance of the action and the stillness of all that surrounds it. It is no wonder that Hou Hsiao-Hsien walked away from Cannes with plaudits and the Best Director award to boot. The Assassin finds its worth in cinema as high art, and while the story may not match up to the dizzying heights of its visuals (this film is truly the most gorgeous film of the year to this point), the mastery of that visual poetry is more than worth the price of admission.