The Assassin (Nie yin niang)

Taiwan (2015) Dir. Hou Hsiao-Hsien

After seven years away from film business Taiwanese auteur Hou Hsiao-Hsien returns with his first foray into the martial arts genre, a rather surprising direction for someone who has made his name with bleak arthouse social dramas. Favourably rewarded at Cannes this year, it is fair to say that The Assassin is not your standard commercial wu xia affair.

Set in 9th century China as the Tang Dynasty is nearing its end, a lone assassin Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi) has been raised since she was 10 years-old by a nun Jiaxin (Sheu Fang-yi) to kill corrupt governors who disobey the Emperor. When Yinniang she relents on one mission she is sent back to her home province of Weibo where, as a test of her resolve, Yinniang is to kill the tyrannical governor Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen), her cousin and the man to whom she was once betrothed.

Don’t be fooled by the simple sounding plot Hou sets out to confound us from the opening black and white frame of Yinniang and Jiaxin standing silently under a tree. There is much more to the story but the spartan dialogue and lack of solid and much needed exposition gives little away, thus making it a little difficult to fully grasp the events that transpire.

The period setting means political upheaval and struggles for power were rife among the various districts of China. Weibo is fronted by a lord who seeks an increase in his local power which is what Jiaxin and Yinniang are fighting against, despite the shared bloodline. There are also some personal disruptions to Tian’s life in the form of his concubine Huji (Hsieh Hsin-Ying) and his wife Lady Tian (Zhou Yun), but what they are doesn’t appear fully explored unless I missed something.

If one is familiar with Hou’s style (first timer here) then the way The Assassin unfolds will not be a surprise. If however you are expecting something akin to the bombastic action packed epics China skilfully produces in its sleep, you will be sorely disappointed and bemused by this picturesque but sparse tale. The action scenes are few and far between, terse but deftly choreographed affairs, direct in their no nonsense abruptness.

Hou apparently had the cast redo the fights until they were both move perfect and the actors where battle worn, providing a pleasant antidote for the many films in which the fighters may look battered but still have time to pose for the camera. Instead Yinniang strikes and walks away, confident her work is done and it usually is, or simply affording her opponent a generous stay of execution.

Yinniang is a mysteriously enigmatic character who past is revealed through occasional slivers of information via Hou’s apparent favourite method of exposition – the conversation! We learn that Yinniang was kidnapped as a child by Jiaxin and no-one in Weibo did anything to stop it, clearly regretting that decision now. She has just nine lines of dialogue throughout the entire film and even then they are largely reports of her mission to Jiaxin.

But don’t take this as a waste of Shu Qi’s talents – she is able to present a fully rounded character to us, whose feelings and inner turmoil is very readable behind the almost expressionless face she sports (Hou reportedly told Qi to tone her expressions DOWN for this role!). She may not smile, cry or show external pain but there is something in her eyes and body language which tells the story louder than words does, while the use of strikes in her battles equally speaks volumes.

It would seem that most of the characters are cast from the same mould and their actions define their personalities more than their words do. Tian has the look of a strict power mad lord, complete with the stern fixed glare, yet he has a softer side when around his children. His wife looks constantly forlorn and is clearly going through the motions when being pampered by her staff.

The only character that remains a bigger mystery than Yinniang (again I might have missed something) is Jiaxin. While her political loyalties are made clear, quite who she is and why, for a nun, she is so scathing towards Yinniang for showing mercy towards a child is not explained. Perhaps we are not meant to know, but her hold on Yinniang is clearly a terrifying one if she can have her slaughter anyone – even family – on her word.

Somehow Hou doesn’t seem concerned with such trivialities as story and plot, instead preferring to concentrate on presenting us with a startling piece of visual poetry, in which he succeeds with aplomb. Historical China has always been a delightful source for lush settings and costumes for modern day filmmakers to exploit, the vibrant colours of the costumes, the intricacies and splendour of the architecture and the verdant beauty of the landscapes.

Hou is no different and capture many a stunning tableau throughout the film but frustratingly he chose to do so in a 4:3 picture ratio. Frustrating because the vistas and palatial settings are screaming out for the panoramic treatment for us to marvel at every inch of their sensuous wonder. Only one brief scene of Jiaxin playing the zither in a garden is shown in widescreen, everything else remains front and centre.

DOP Mark Lee Ping Bin has been rightfully rewarded for his stunning cinematography here, so even if you fail to be engaged by the meandering story, mumbling characters and infrequent fight scenes, at least your eyes are in for a real treat.

Being honest, I can see why The Assassin has its detractors, notwithstanding the excitement suggested by the title which is seldom provided. This is an arthouse take on wu xia, meaning only cineastes and Hou fans will find some reward in this quiet, brooding, admittedly arcane yet visually majestic film.