Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s first film in eight years, The Assassin has been greeted with nearly unanimous rapture. Critics’ reports from Cannes nearly all claimed it the best film in competition, calling it beautiful and enigmatic, and stateside reviews have been just as positive. The film is Hsiao-Hsien’s take on the wuxia genre, which, in both literature and film, focuses on the doings of lone heroes, usually assassins, who wield their martial art skills for the purposes of righting wrongs or restoring the proper balance to tectonic powers. The form is largely a literary one, and Hsiao-Hsien has talked about how such books were an inspiration to him growing up. Many Asian directors do make a wuxia story at some time (usually earlier in their career), so for Hsiao-Hsien, who is now 68, this film is obviously a labor of love. While predominately a genre of Hong Kong cinema (although Hsiao-Hsien is Taiwanese), American audiences are probably most familiar with the genre by way of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Zhang Yimou’s Hero or House of Flying Daggers. Such films, while full of drama and intrigue, do usually fall under the category of marital arts film, and you expect at least an equal portion of action to the dramatics. Those familiar with Hsiao-Hsien’s style (he is renowned for his use of a static camera and long takes, as in Flowers of Shanghai, which is comprised of 38 lengthy shots) will not be surprised to learn that his version of the wuxia format takes a markedly, although not radically, different aesthetic tack when it comes to working through the narrative. While not as austere and immobile as his previous films, the camera is still quite static, and the takes are longer than one would certainly expect for an “action” film; the action itself is often discursively portrayed, and even when the focus of a scene, rarely feels immediate or exciting. Whereas in previous films his use of long takes and long shots allowed the story to unfold in a grounded, observational manner (even when characters spend long chunks of time in monologue), here the technique feels an odd hybrid. The cutting is comparatively quicker than in previous work, but still very slow and strange for an action film – often, a character or pair of characters will spend the first half of a shot speaking, and then the remainder of the shot features the character standing and staring, immobile, or with very little affect. I must admit I am completely at a loss as to what the aesthetic value of this technique is supposed to be. It seems intended to impress upon us the import of whatever information or emotion was just imparted or portrayed, but instead it feels leaden and pretentious, stagy and, quite honestly, boring.
The story is quite hard to follow, partly because Hsiao-Hsien does not try to bring us along easily or make relationships explicit, and partly because the concerns of the plot are quite remote to us. The film is set in China during the 7th century, and revolves around a young female assassin named Nie Yinniang (Qi Shu). Yinniang has been in exile from her family for years, training with a nun versed in the ways of treachery on a mountaintop somewhere. Previously chided by her mentor for being too soft-hearted and slow to kill, Yinniang is now tasked with proving her mettle by returning to her family and slaying her cousin Tian Ji’an (Chen Chang) who is the ruler of her home region of Weibo. The nun relates to Yinniang how Weibo previously was on the verge of splitting away from Imperial rule, and it was Yinniang’s mother (if I followed the plot fully) who restored harmony through marriage. Now the province is again on the verge of challenging Imperial rule, and so it is the daughter’s task to kill her cousin to prevent this. The problem is that Yinniang not only doesn’t want to kill her cousin because he is family, but because she is in love with him. Thus the bulk of the film consists of her oftentimes playing the good cousin inside his court, and in the remainder skulking around with the intent of killing him, but never being able to go through with the deed. For his part, Ji’an starts to feel something is not right, and intuits that Yinniang is an assassin and wants him dead – so he vacillates between a desire to prevent this eventuality and, realizing she has done nothing wrong yet, wanting to figure her out (we suspect he also harbors similarly romantic feelings towards her). The film thus becomes a strange pas de deux, with both parties neither able to commit to violence or to ravishment, and so at least this viewer was left feeling similarly unresolved and jammed up. Eventually Yinniang returns to her mentor, confesses her inability to do what she was trained to do, and the movie ends.
Many of the positive reviews of the film I’ve read comment on how wonderfully staged and exciting the action is; am I missing something? Perhaps for a Hou Hsiao-Hsien film it is fast paced, but the action is very minimal indeed. At the beginning, Yinniang jumps out of the treeline and slits the throat of a passing noble. Is there blood? No. Is the camerawork particularly interesting or more active than in a typical such film? No. Are the acrobatics more inventively staged or more dynamic than in your average Hong Kong martial arts film? No, no, a thousand times no. While the film seemingly does not make use of the stupid digital effects of Crouching Tiger, which at least keeps what is portrayed rooted in reality, I did not find the martial arts segments (which are what makes a wuxia a wuxia after all) terribly interesting. The most interesting thing about the action sequences is that the majority are abortive, unresolved, and (unlike the introductory assassination) staged at a distance. For instance, we will see, in a long shot, guards on patrol within a treeline. Suddenly we see the branches bobbing and dancing, and can just make out, within the treeline, Yinniang appearing and disappearing, apparently killing some guards. Then, just as soon as the disturbance arrived, it departs. We don’t see who died, or even have an idea if anyone did, or why the attack took place at all. (I fully admit I might have missed crucial information throughout that would clarify such things). In all, almost nobody dies in the film, and the action is there only to foreground the impossibility of acting for the protagonist. So we have a few scenes like that, and then many, many scenes set in palace interiors, with characters talking, or more often declaiming, and then posing statically until we go to the next such scene. While I will admit I am vexed by the film, and intrigued by Hsiao-Hsien’s intentions, the experience of watching it did not deliver any immediate emotional or even intellectual payoff. Yes, it is a “beautiful” film, in the way that many international art film directors can deliver a “beautiful” film (especially when dealing with a remote time period) – the lighting is rich and natural, candles make interiors dens of shifting shadows, cast in a golden hue, there is much flowing fabric and verdant natural surroundings, and the sound design is quite good. But the results are soporific. For all the accusations that it was totalitarian, I will take Yimou’s full-blooded Hero any day of the week. If this marks me as a philistine, so be it.