I’m starting a bit of an ‘art cinema’ high as of late so if anybody has any suggestions, do please let me know!
I first heard about The Assassin some time last year following it’s hugely successful premiere at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival and naturally, due to my love for martial arts movies and just Chinese period pieces in general, I was intrigued; but I never got around I watching it. My interest piqued once again when it was nominated for the award of ‘Best Film Not in the English Language’ at this past BAFTA‘s. I said to myself “Right, I’m gonna watch that movie!” and I did, last night; two months later.
The Assassin, or ‘The Long Pause’ as you often feel it should’ve been called, is much to martial arts movies what The VVitch is to horror movies. Much like that is a slow paced, artsy period piece with some horror, The Assassin is a slow paced, artsy period piece with some martial arts. It’s sorta like the difference between the Ip Man films and Wong Kar-wai's The Grandmaster. One went for more or less a general martial arts approach and the other opted for something more artistic. Times that artistic approach by 10 and you’re closer to where The Assassin is.
Before I get into it, here is a look at the trailer so you have some idea of what we’re dealing with:
The general plot, loosely based on the late 9th century martial arts story ‘Nie Yinniang’ by Pei Xing, goes a little something like this, (via IMDb)
8th century China. 10-year-old general's daughter Nie Yinniang is abducted by a nun who initiates her into the martial arts, transforming her into an exceptional assassin charged with eliminating cruel and corrupt local governors. One day, having failed in a task, she is sent back by her mistress to the land of her birth, with orders to kill the man to whom she was promised - a cousin who now leads the largest military region in North China. After 13 years of exile, the young woman must confront her parents, her memories and her long-repressed feelings. A slave to the orders of her mistress, Nie Yinniang must choose: sacrifice the man she loves or break forever with the sacred way of the righteous assassins.
The opening scene is presented in crisp, high contrast black and white. It shows Yinniang’s (Shu Qi) attempt to assassinate a corrupt leader, which she fails to complete as she could not being herself to do it in the presence of his son. This then prompts her to be sent back to Weibo to kill her cousin and test her loyalty to the assassins. The plot is relatively straight forward but somehow is difficult to follow and keep track of who’s doing what to whom. I found myself rewinding a lot because I kept thinking that I may have missed something.
As this is Hou Hsiao-Hsien film though, plot isn't really the main focus.
Hou told The Guardian:
“I don’t think that plot is the only way to appeal to an audience. The audience can catch the message of a film through landscape, character, details.”
The film focuses much more on character building and trying to make you connect with its characters. The main focus is master assassin, Nie Yinniang, dubbed 'the woman in black', played by Shu Qi. Yinniang is a mysterious presence with minimal dialogue. She says about three sentences in the entire film. Yinniang returns home after 13 years and from the get go, the movie tries to give you an understanding of exactly who she is, who she was. As the other characters learn of her return, we are treated to lots of backstory by way of conversations between them being about the events leading up to her departure. As the story unfolds, we learn that although Yinniang is a frighteningly skilled assassin, she is very conflicted by way of her sympathetic human nature. There are many times when she’s lurking in the shadows, looking like she’s about to strike... And she doesn’t. She instead stands there, staring, showing her inner conflict through the expressions on her face. Like what we spend most of our time doing in the Hitman games, sort of like a stalker. Well, she is an assassin. Shu Qi is mesmerizing, enchanting and just straight up badass in this role.
Of course, we can’t forgot the rest of the cast, all of whom put on great performances. The film also stars Chabg Chen as Tian Ji'an, Yinniang's cousin to whom she was formally betrothed and the notary governor she is tasked to kill by her mistress, Jiaxin (Fang-Yi Sheu); Zhon Yun as his wife, Lady Than. The cast also includes Ni Dahong and Yong Mei as Nie Yinniangs parents, Nie Feng and Nie Tian.
Hou is known for his feel for location, and reportedly wanted to shoot outside as much as possible. The film sometimes feels like style over substance; and even if it is, it’s difficult to care when the style is this damn good. Predominately shot in Mongolia, standing in for 8th century China, the film is beautifully shot and has a heavy focus throughout on scenery and atmosphere. Probably 90% of scenes just look at the landscape, focusing on nature. Maybe trying to reflect the human nature of Yinniang. Too deep? The Assassin really wants you to appreciate the views, and you can’t help but. Just scenes of trees rustling in the wind and the streams flowing can be mesmerizing, peaceful, meditative... You might also think that the film has frozen. Seriously, so much nature- shots of palaces and buildings are often obscured by leaves and the fight scenes also take place between tree trunks. It does add something though, almost a sense of tranquility. It is pretty stunning. I have to give a shout out to a scene near the beginning of the film; Tian Ji’an’s concubine and dancer, Huji (Hsieh Hsin- Ying) playing a string instrument that I wish I knew the name of (I wanna say Guqin but I’m unsure) accompanied by a voice-over of the story of a little bluebird. It’s better if you hear it for yourself. Not to mention the costumes! That's one thing that Chinese period pieces never get wrong.
The dialogue in this film consists mainly of long stories and it's all very poetic sounding. You’ll find yourself trying to make sense of it like trying to analyse those Shakespeare texts in school. The conversations reminded me, in a way, of Alejandro G. Iñàrritu’s Oscar winner, The Revenant. Similarly to The Revenant, The Assassin’s dialogue consists mainly of talks of motives, morals, politics, destiny and philosophy. Conversations that don’t really push along the story but instead opt to build it’s characters to the point that you can understand them.
There are also lots of scenes with no dialogue at all. Just sitting, staring and doing everyday things. It may perhaps be trying to mimic real life. The film can go about ten minutes at a time with no words uttered- just going back and fourth between characters; one of them might be eating, one might be sleeping; like an ancient Chinese episode of Big Brother. It almost feels like its reversed in the sense that it uses scenes that other movies wouldn't. For example, the Birch forest fight. The Birch forest fight was beautiful but the shots of Yinniang and the lady in the golden mask, walking through the forest, finding each other and then having a long stare down before they started and then another at the end, was longer than the fight itself. Having said that, it added a sense of tranquility to an otherwise un-tranquil situation; Each fight is story and I'm ultimately glad that it was there. A similar thing happens towards the end. It takes about 5 minutes for Yinniang to walk up a hill to confront somebody, and we see it in it's entirety. And then the fight is over as if in a blink.
Now, you might be thinking “This is supposed to be a martial arts movie but you haven't mentioned martial arts much at all.” That’s true, I haven’t. Actual fights don’t seem to be at top of The Assassin’s priority list. It may have been advertised as such, but this isn't a martial arts movie; not really. The fight scenes are few and short, however stunning and flawless. Unlike other martial arts directors, Hou didn't go for the typical 'zero gravity' approach that we often see. He told Film Comment:
"It’s not my style to have fighters flying through the air. That’s not my way. I want to follow the rules of gravity. The most important thing is to be close to reality."
My favourite fight scene is the aforementioned ‘Birch forest fight’
See it in it’s entirety below.
Lets talk about the films music. There isn’t any. No music. The only tunes we hear in this film are being played by characters in-movie. The lack of a soundtrack adds to the raw and realistic atmosphere that this film seems to be going for, and only using in-film music, at least for me, adds to the immersion and embrace of the culture. The film also uses no CGI that I could tell and is shot in a 4:3 ratio.
By the end of this piece, you’ll think to yourself, "Okay... so what exactly happened in the last near 2 hours?" The plot can be difficult to grasp and It doesn't really feel like much actually happened. But The Assassin isn't about that. This is a human study about moral conflicts, human nature and lots of outdoorsy nature. It’s a film that you’ll probably have to watch again in an attempt to fully understand it.
The points I have made may come across as negatives; but they aren’t. None of the things I have mentioned took away from the film for me. The Assassin is a film that is very aware of itself and it’s very clear what Hou Hsiao-Hsien wanted it to be. If I had gone into this expecting an actiony martial arts movie, I would've been underwhelmed, but I knew exactly what I was getting into. The Assassin is a beautiful, artistic, peaceful, thought provoking and meditative piece of cinema that doesn't want you to think too hard but be immersed in its world and culture and embrace the beauty of nature. It is a film that I enjoyed very much and plan on watching again.
What did you think of Hou Hsiao-Hsien's art-house take on the martial arts genre? Let me know!