It is naïve for anyone to enter into a screening of Hsiao-Hsien Hou’s The Assassin and expect to witness the type of energetic action and forthright narrative found in a House of Flying Daggers. As one of the pioneers of New Taiwanese Cinema, Hou’s elliptical storytelling and sensuous, contemplative visuals have become mandatory traits of his directorship, and are used for wonderful symbolic effect in the film that won him Best Director at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Frustratingly evasive and beautifully still in both its narrative and scenes, The Assassin is a film that must be met with no expectations in order to fully taste its nectar.
In 9th century China, during the golden age of the Tang dynasty, Jiaxin, a Taoist nun (Fang-Yi Sheu) raises a young girl to be both efficient and effective in the art of killing. Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi) glides like a phantom through the trees before nimbly executing a man on horseback in one of the monochromatic opening scenes, yet when her next target cradles his sleeping son on a still evening, her blade remains bloodless at the sight. Disgruntled with her ward’s emotional attachment, Jiaxin sends Yinniang to Weibo province in northern China – where conflict with the Imperial Court is simmering under the surface – to despatch its governor, Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen): both her cousin and the man she was once betrothed to.
Yinniang’s hesitancy is encapsulated in scenes of tranquil stillness edged by moments of swift, highly charged martial arts, although the latter are sparse, quickly concluded and unoriginal in choreography. Yet these kinetic moments allow the mesmerising, realistic shots of life to be more startling in their dissonance: Yinniang silently weeping into her hands as the curtains dance to the wind behind her, a long pan over a grey lake, the silhouettes of trees lying flat in the backdrop as a flock of birds flicker across the sky. The Assassin is a patchwork of these enchanting moments, shot on 35mm film that produces luxurious, hypnotic colours and movement in scenes that say nothing but mean everything. Despite their meditative quality, they encompass a level of simmering anxiety in their stillness, such as when the camera moves slowly behind a fluttering veil as Tian Ji’an is with his concubine, placing an audience in the voyeuristic position of the assassin.
Yet the evasive, cryptic narrative ensures that our voyeurism is not entirely indulged: scattered, sparse dialogue and scenes of silence create a story that slowly creeps on without ever hinting at significant narrative points or turns. Whilst exasperating, it does produce an active audience, not mere observers but participators, scanning the visuals for clues and attempting to piece it all together after the credits roll. Huo’s still scenes are infused with the vigorous energy of an audience desperately trying to make sense of it all. Even its characters are full of bubbling, internal energy that only tinges their surface: Shu Qi performs her role as Yinniang with understated elegance, her face and movements both bewitching and emotive even in their stillness. Chang Chen is charming and grand in his screen presence, his bold swagger creating tension in every scene that he’s a part of, and Zhou Yun wonderfully hints at the crafted cunning used within the social circles of power as Tian Ji’an’s wife.
The Assassin is a film that requires more than one viewing in order to receive the entire force of its impact, since the struggle of its evasive narrative can be maddening at times, especially to audiences whom are fed on flashbacks, pandering dialogue and deus ex machinas. However, it is this sense of mystery that colours the film, that leaves it reeling in your head for days after its beautifully muted closing scene. If you expect Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon then The Assassin will disappoint you. If you relinquish yourself to Hao’s realistic stillness and visual beauty, it is one of the most captivating films of the year.