THE ASSASSIN (2015)
Director: Hsiao-Hsien Hou
Cast: Qi Shu, Chen Chang, Satoshi Tsumabuki, Shao-Huai Chang, Hsieh Hsin-Ying, Juan Ching-Tian, Dahong Ni, Yun Zhou, Fang-yi Sheu
Running Time: 1:47
Release Date: 10/16/15 (limited); 10/30/15 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | October 30, 2015
There is an aura of doom that permeates The Assassin, a film of haunting beauty that tells the story of haunted people. "Story" might not be the right word to describe the experience that the film imparts. This is less a narrative than it is a pageant. Co-writer/director Hsiao-Hsien Hou's film is almost exclusively about creating that mood of imminent disaster against the backdrop of China in the 8th century, when provinces were gaining independence from the Imperial Court.
The actual history comes at us fast in an opening bit of text (greatly expanded upon in the subtitled English translation), but the personal histories of these characters arrive in a much more relaxed manner—and sparingly. This is not to say that the screenplay by Hou, Cheng Ah, T'ien-wen Chu, and Hai-Meng Hsieh (based on the short story by Xing Pei) is unconcerned with plot and characters. They certainly exist and are intertwined with those tales of history here, offering a story of past hurts and broken familial bonds that have come home to roost. It's simply that Hou's technique takes center stage, while everything else stands on the sides of the stage or waits in the wings.
What technique it is, too—a meticulously composed and hypnotically lit (Ping Bin Lee provides the naturally illuminated cinematography) series of shots that tell us as much about these characters as, if not more than, they have to say for themselves. Hou begins in striking black-and-white, which gives way to the lush colors of its title shot—a harvest orange sky reflected in a lake, with silhouetted trees and a tower standing in front of a range of purple mountains. Hou doesn't rush the shot. He knows its aesthetic impact, and he treats the rest of the film with a similar patience.
Save for one scene, the entire film is framed in the boxier, Academy ratio, although in that one scene, Hou expands the width of the frame to show a character in a peaceful state. Obviously, the difference draws our attention to what she's doing and the story she's telling, making the activity and that story of particular import to understanding something about another character. Also since it's the only time the screen is that wide, that should say something about the usual state of affairs here. The film's form—as it should be—is a key component of its content.
Our protagonist is Yinniang (Qi Shu), who, in that opening scene, kills an anonymous man of power. Her moves are swift and precise—a quick jump and a seamless slash to his neck stop the man dead in his tracks, until he falls from his horse. Yinniang is killing on orders from Jiaxin (Fang-yi Sheu), who is a princess by birth and a nun by calling. Yinniang is the princess-nun's apprentice, and the trade is political assassination.
Yinniang's second assignment takes her to the home of a local governor, and she stands still, silent, and unblinking from the rafters above his receiving room. Provided the perfect opportunity to strike as the governor sleeps with his son in his arms, Yinniang pauses when the man instinctually protects his child. No words are exchanged in the moment of decision, but it's clear that Yinniang is no amoral killer.
As punishment for her apprentice's failure, Jiaxin gives Yinniang a final assignment to complete her training: She must kill her cousin Tian Ji'an (Chen Chang), the ruler of her home province of Weibo. Ji'an is facing a crisis of his own, as the leaders of two newly-formed provinces surrounding Weibo's borders are currently feuding. Doing nothing could mean the downfall of the province from one of the others, looking to extend its reach. Taking a side could result in an attack from the forces of the Imperial Court.
The geopolitical information is at once vital and irrelevant. The general idea that Weibo, its rulers, and its unseen populace could fall through action or inaction is key, but the specifics do not matter. The threat is enough.
The characters and plot of the film possess a similar duality. We don't learn much about the assassin and her target, save to hear that they were once betrothed to be married, until political alliances became more fundamental to the province's survival. We also learn that Yinniang was sent to the princess-nun—the twin sister of Weibo's late, beloved princess who came from the Imperial Court—in order to protect her from retaliation for a youthful misadventure. These overall details are important. The specifics do not matter.
What we see are internal and external conflicts without any means of a satisfactory resolution. Yinniang, torn between honoring the woman who raised her and remaining faithful to her family, must decide between a path of violence or forgiveness. Either option, like the one Ji'an must but is hesitant to make, could turn out poorly for everyone involved. There are fights here, but they are intentionally anticlimactic—shot from a distance, suddenly interrupted, or, in one instance, kept entirely off screen. No specifics are necessary, because Yinniang shows herself to be the best combatant amongst all comers. She doesn't need to resort to violence in order to defeat a foe. Surely there is wisdom in that.
Hou's primary aim seems to be these philosophical ruminations. He gives us the basics and expects us to fill in the blanks (A magenta-robed assassin in a mask of golden flames and a sorcerer in the third act are particularly enigmatic). Perhaps, though, the most important key to deciphering The Assassin comes with its first aesthetic shift. The black-and-white act of killing becomes a multi-colored process of avoiding bloodshed. It's about comprising one's duties without compromising one's decency.
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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