The Assassin is a film of curious restraint, and perhaps a perfect expression of the power such restraint offers. Opening with a prologue shot in black and white, with a constrictive, boxed-in aspect ratio, Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s film takes its time before bursting into rapturous colour, the screen awash with rich orange hues. This is just the first of a number of moments of such exquisite natural beauty it’s difficult to do anything other than gasp.
Set in 9th Century China, Shu Qi is the titular assassin, Nie Yinniang, sent to kill her cousin and former betrothed as punishment for a failed assignment. She’s forced to confront her past, her family, and her role in a larger political crisis as she grapples with what to do.
If all of that makes The Assassin sound narratively complex, it’s a misleading impression. Hsiao-Hsien has little interest in the intricacies of plot or its resolution, and the audience is left to piece together much of the narrative from flickering fragments of exposition and subtle visual cues.
Instead, the director pares the film back to its visual and sonic essence, a steady unfolding of events and experiences that establish the film’s vivid feel. Candles flicker, reflected and refracted to abstraction. Cliffs loom, wreathed in mist, while a solitary goose is allowed the time to slowly wing its way across the frame. Booming drums hang over scenes, suggesting the threat out of sight, the danger just over the horizon.
That danger is often Yinniang herself, lurking in the shadows, hovering at the edge of Hsiao-Hsien’s expansive frames. She’s frequently obscured, even from the audience, seen only through thick clouds of steam or diaphanous curtains, perpetually separated from the world, and the people, around her. She’s as much a spectre of the past as a figure in the present, a reminder of old loyalties and bygone days, long since lost.
In terms of genre, The Assassin draws heavily from Chinese wuxia (think Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), but the martial arts, much like the plot, are firmly secondary. “Cut him down for me, expertly,” Yinniang is instructed early on, and that we can do so we are given little doubt. Fights are brief, and dominance is established quickly, with often no more than a couple of blows exchanged. But each conflict serves tone or character, pushing the film into new directions or allowing the expression of relationships otherwise kept under the surface.
As Yinniang, Qi is implacable, a stone-faced observer giving little away. But it’s her physical performance that’s telling, her movements freeing as the shackles of her martial upbringing loosen, her predatory stalk giving way to a lighter step. Chang Chen is more emotive as her cousin and target Tian Ji’an, a local governor emasculated by the threatening imperial court. Prone to temper, his rushed, instinctive movements stand in sharp contrast to hers, the sign of a life lived free of her heavy restrictions.
Director of photography Mark Lee Ping Bing’s wide, distant shots wallow in the beautiful settings, every frame dripping with rich colour. There are few close-ups here, the camera instead hanging back to catch as much as it can, trusting in the audience to pick out crucial details – or simply get lost in the sensory depths.
The Assassin is pensive, almost meditative, gently unfolding at its own deliberate pace. Audiences willing to give it the time to do so will find matchless, refined filmmaking, as beautiful as it is mysterious.
Words by Dominic Preston