Enthusiastically applauded by some while emphatically denounced by others, The Assassin has been seen to epitomize Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien’s career as a filmmaker. Yet despite both the fanfare and mixed reception this film has received, almost all parties have unanimously agreed that The Assassin is an enigma through and through. Few viewers, I believe, can walk out of this film feeling confident that they “get it” completely. Much of its reputed abstruseness and obscurity has to do with the distinct lack of verbal communication. Indeed, all conversations in the film are spoken tersely, in an enigmatic archaic dialect, compounded by a jarring modern Taiwanese accent (known for its affected tenderness and garrulity). Further adding to the confusion, the plot does not reveal itself easily to the viewer, who, left all on his own, finds figuring it all out a chafing task.
As it turns out, the plot itself is actually much less complicated than the form of the film. A continuation of the Chinese tradition of wuxia literature, the movie tells a tale of a relenting assassin who fails to perform her lethal duty. Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), or the Woman of Stealth, is sent by her master on a mission to assassinate a rebellious lord named Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen) in a remote border town of China, who, as she is to learn, turns out to be her cousin. Though an otherwise skilled and merciless assassin, Yinniang eventually finds herself unable to go through with the murder after a few futile attempts.
Hou’s film, in the final analysis, is but another attempt to capture the perennial legends at the heart of the Chinese wuxia tradition: those of ruthless yet sentimental men and women faced with a conflict between duty and love, or, put another way, between the need to fulfill one’s debt of gratitude and to remain loyal to one’s personal affections. Indeed, these themes have served as an inexhaustible fountain of inspiration for many Chinese novelists and filmmakers over the course of the 20th century. Where traditional wuxia movies focus on violent bouts of fighting and ferocious battles of will, Hou does not emphasize words or actions. Instead, much of the film is devoted to showing the wild landscape of northwestern China, and a pervasive silence prevails over words. A lyrical mood reigns where violence is expected. The chaos of clashing swords and boiling blood seems to slowly die away in the tranquil luminosity of the falling eventide.
This stubborn pursuit of quiet beauty is at once the motivating force and the ultimate failure of Hou’s unique craft. His clarity of vision ensures that the film’s various birch forests and palace interiors and ancient relics are beautiful—so beautiful, indeed, that they almost become distorted and unreal. Throughout the film, Yinniang is portrayed as a solitary figure, a woman of swift action but little words whose inner struggles ultimately remain invisible to us. But one could say this fundamental opacity risks stripping the film of art itself: the outbursts of passion, tears, and afflictions of the soul that fill the novels of Dostoevsky and the tragedies of Shakespeare are nowhere to be found; instead, everything carries through smoothly and almost effortlessly, without the slightest hint of mental perturbation. A veneer of calmness enfolds Yinniang, but in Hou’s costly gambit, nothing of any real human interest is found underneath.
The Assassin is now playing at the IFC Center, Nitehawk Cinema, and at Film Society at Lincoln Center.
Last revised by: Double Exposure, our reviewer, on November 23, 2015.