By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
I settled into my seat wondering how Hou Hsaio-Hsien, a Taiwanese director with an eye to the quirks, and subtle quakes of human interchange, would approach a martial arts film, specifically, a “wuxia” (“martial hero”) narrative, with its implicit practices. And “The Assassin,” his first full-length film since 2008’s “The Flight of the Red Balloon,” showcases, I think, more of the director’s distinctive approaches than genre expectations.
It seems only fair warning to note that moviegoers expecting an enormous amount of action might well walk away disappointed. Hou Hsaio-Hsien acknowledges the tradition, but his swordfights and fistfights sometimes trail off after only a few swipes. The largest altercation takes place partially obscured by trees.
The film makes several points in this fashion. It emphasizes that few viewpoints in life make for optimal viewpoints—counterpoint to conventional martial arts films and even conventional films, which specialize in providing optimal viewpoints. It places the action of humans against the steadfast, majestic indifference of nature, which existed long before the combats and shall long outlast them. And it reminds us that any viewpoint represents only one possible view out of many possibilities.
The story is difficult to follow without a working knowledge of Chinese history, although the America prints, at least, provide some opening screen text designed to help. During the Tang Dynasty, relations between the increasingly troubled Chinese central government and the province of Weibo begin to break down—largely, though not entirely, because of Weibo’s great distance from that central government.
Against this tension, a female assassin, Nie Yinniang (Shu Qui) appears. She’s been trained by a princess, Jiaxin (Fang-Yi Sheu), who turned against her lineage and became a Taoist nun.
Nie Yinniang grew up slim, strong, powerful, and unbelievably quick. Jiaxin puts her to work slaying people Jiaxin believes should be killed. But when Nie Yinniang refuses to take a life, Jiaxin gives her a seemingly impossible task: To dispatch someone close to Nie Yinniang. Someone she’s known and cared for her whole life.
I found the plot hard to follow and deliberately fragmented. I kept getting knocked out, though, by the visuals. Hou Hsaio-Hsien, aided by director of photography Mark Lee Ping Bin, drinks in the rushing water, waving grasses, and astounding variations of grays and browns in nature.
That contrasts with the artificial world the people of this world created for themselves. Gold glitters, surely, but glitters in variations as palace decorations spin and shimmer. Fine vases, immaculate shiny tables, costumes and hairdressing which must consume hours to perfect—the artificial world boasts more flash than nature, though not necessarily more staying power or more inherent worth.
And the director, indoors and out, captures subtle moments, atypical for such a film. A powerful man attends to his advisers telling him how critical affairs have become; we know he’s not really listening because he’s got his feet propped up and his head turned away, the picture of a bored teenager or grade-schooler. Elsewhere, a little child plays with a butterfly and watches in wondrous sadness as it flies past his reach. Two or three children play with brightly colored balls. A sense of exhilaration and possibility in the children’s play echoes back to “The Flight of the Red Balloon” which, although set in a very different world, also invited us to look through a child’s eyes.
The whimsy drains away, slowly. A grimmer attitude surmounts. I couldn’t quite understand “The Assassin” but I believe you can and should see it—at least once—to test your perceptions, and beliefs, against it. (end)
“The Assassin” opens Friday, November 6th, at the SIFF Cinema Egyptian, 805 East Pine Street on Seattle’s Capitol Hill. For prices, show times, and more information, visit http://www.siff.net/cinema/assassin.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.