On "The Assassin" : Stillness in the heart of a Tempest

"The Assassin" is the latest film by the acclaimed director Hou Hsiao-Hsien. It is loosely based on the 9th century martial arts tale "Nie Yinniang," the story of a young woman who is trained as one of the deadliest assassins of her period. In Hou's version, the young woman is forcibly sent away by a noblewoman to her twin sister - a nun who practices martial arts. Yinniang grows up to be the ruthless assassin, a tool that her teacher utilizes without thought and mercy. The film opens with a mission where she walks away from her intended target - a government official who is cradling his sleeping son in his arms. As a punishment she is sent back to Weibo, her homeland, to assassinate its current governor, Tian Jian - her cousin, formerly betrothed to her.

The story and its setting is a familiar theme in the Chinese martial-arts literature, the wuxia style of storytelling. The wuxia style has long been a staple of the movie industry in China, but was introduced to a global audience by early movies like "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon"  (Ang Lee, 2000),  followed by Zhang Yimou's "Hero (2003)," "The House of Flying Daggers (2004)," and "The Curse of the Golden Flower (2006)." This style has exploded in popularity in the West due to the well balanced presentation of the plot that is equal parts a dramatic tale and a fantastic voyage into an unfamiliar culture, with its elaborate rules and etiquette. (Some would argue, that the current market for wuxia movies is saturated in a similar fashion as the superhero genre in the West - but that is a topic for some other time!)

Hou's treatment of the genre is however, a departure from the mainstream wuxia. His story is first and foremost, the tale of the characters - their lives, their society, their rigid principles, and their often tragic consequences. Known for his meticulous visual arrangement and long takes with a stationary camera, Hou's films symbolize a surprising solidarity with the viewer, the "observer." He uses this style to great effect in this movie, creating a sense of presence and helplessness as the viewer watches the events unfold. Unlike other action movies, there is no bombastic declaration of righteousness, no over-the-top display of carefully choreographed fights. Hou also imparts a rare dignity to the dead - not one drop of spilled blood is visible, and in one instance, the death is shown as a breaking apart of a mask - giving its wearer a dignified option of literally walking off the stage. True to the genre, the action exists, but it is played out as a realistic duel - over in a matter of few minutes, and only serves to move the plot ahead to the next act. 

The main character Nie Yinniang, has barely ten spoken lines of dialogue in the hundred odd-minutes of the movie. She is beautifully realized by Shu Qi, utilizing the unspoken language of gait, silence, pauses, and facial expressions. One can sense that Hou wants to emphasize the internal nature of a martial art warrior over their skill, and Shu Qi's performance is a stellar manifestation of the battle between restraint and chaos. It is a deliberate effort, marked by what I like to term an "economy of expression." Having watched her earlier performance in "Journey to the West (2013)," I was pleasantly surprised by the range of her acting abilities. 

The movie is brilliantly photographed by Mark Lee Ping Bin, Hou's longtime collaborator. Ping Bin allows the story to flow organically through the environment, utilizing as much natural light and atmosphere as possible. The frames are beautifully captured and set up, but this beauty is not a superficial garnish. The characters and their environs act as a symbiotic entity, each using the other as a means of expression.

The music by Lim Giong is sparse, in keeping with the stark design of the rest of the movie. It blends perfectly with the narrative, rising up in moments of tension, and retreating into silence when necessary. 

The movie is far from an easy viewing - there is hardly any exposition, and characters are not introduced and named as in a more traditional story. Knowing the original tale, or at least a summary of it, certainly helps in understanding the mechanics of the plot. Hou keeps things vague, hidden from the viewer, adding another layer of unease. A prevalent sense unsettledness, of an as yet unknown resolution permeates throughout the experience, and even the ending is not fully explained if you are unfamiliar with the original tale. The story is never what is says, no one is what they appear, and almost every scene uses some form of physical barrier (trees, curtains, people) to show the multiple layers of interactions that flow through the story.

Hou uses colors and space (literally!) to compound this sense of disparity - the prologue / flashback is shot in gorgeous black-and-white, and the only other reference to a past event, is a scene that breaks away from the square-ish aspect ratio of the rest of the movie. However, this is not explained in a straightforward fashion. Hou wants the viewer to arrive at this deduction by themselves through an often elliptical narrative. Speaking of the aspect ratio, the IMAX-like vertical format lends itself to capturing a world of detail over the usual widescreen format. It also keeps the physical proportions of the human characters faithful to life, all the while serving as a (severely) claustrophobic lens into this world. It is a brilliant use of the interface (the movie screen) between the story and the observer!

It is really no wonder that this movie has been received exuberantly by critics and the audience alike. To me, the film is a blend of traditional Chinese mythology with a pinch of the Japanese approach to martial arts. It has firmly set itself in my list of favorites, not just in the wuxia genre, but as an enchanting movie experience transcending the limits of genre and language. (Yes, I love wuxia films!) 

Watch it! Watch it Now! :)

More information about this film can be found on its Wikipedia page.