The Assassin puts an auteur’s spin on the traditional wuxia genre. Other Taiwanese and Chinese directors known for art films have given us their take on martial arts films, some with an emphasis on action and some with prominence on the frame.
I first saw films by Hou Hsiao-hsien at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston back in the ‘90s. It’s appropriate that his newest film, The Assassin, plays exclusively at the MFAH for the next two weekends.
Other directors previously renown for contemplative drama that have ventured into this action arena include Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) and their take ratchets up the action aspect of the genre with spectacular set pieces and in the case of Yimou glorious use of slow motion. Wong Kar Wai had already dealt with violence in his films when he made the stylish Ashes of Time (1994). By contrast Hou Hsiao-hsien is still operating on a sublime level and taking an art house approach to his tale of a femme assassin in 9th century China.
To wit: the first time in The Assassin an actual action sequence busts a move it’s over in the blink of an eye. It’s as if you took the opening helicopter fight scene in the new James Bond film (Spectre) and reduced it to two or three seconds. Hou Hsiao-hsien stages the fights from a distance. The battles are well choreographed and we know that the fight has to last some time but we are offered a mere glance at a moment in time.
Hou Hsiao-hsien has more important things on his mind like changing the aspect ratio or switching from black-and-white to color at crucial times. One interior sequence in particular unfolds through curtains and the abstraction of what we think we see and what the characters are seeing is mesmerizing.
Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi) was taken from her family as a youngster and trained by nuns to be an assassin. Now an adult she travels on missions of political retribution. Only her next victim was at one time her fiancé, a betrothal that would have been like a royal marriage to ensure peace between rival regions.
Yinniang comes to question her own part in what she’s doing and all the while The Assassin is a living and breathing embodiment of her free will.
— Michael Bergeron