Words by Jonathon Smith
History, it would seem, is the favourite subject of director Hou Hsiao-Hsien who, having won critical acclaim in the past for his focus on historical events and periods in his native Taiwan, now turns his gaze upon 8th century China with The Assassin. Nie Yinniang (Hsien’s muse, Shu Qi) is a killer, silent and deadly in her approach, with a trademark dagger/hairpin as her weapon of choice. She has been trained by Jiaxin (Fang-Yi Sheu), a Taoist nun who also rules over her as master.
When Yinniang fails to complete a mission, Jiaxin forces her to face an emotional and gruelling challenge; to slay her cousin Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen) who also happens to be the governor for the militarily unstable Weibo province in Northern China. Jiaxin’s idea is to break Yinniang fully, destroying any sentiment and humanity left in her apprentice.
The harshness of the task, and the nature of the relationship, is captured within these first scenes through the use of black and white photography. The scenes act as a preface or prologue to the central tale, but from the moment we (and Yinniang) arrive in Weibo, the film installs colour, which gloriously bursts from every inch of the 4:3 framed screen. It is such a comprehensive feature of the film that it almost seems to take over, filling a negative space provided by a slowly paced and generally thin narrative.
Hsien’s aim here is to create a juxtaposition between the early scenes of black and white with those of colour. He is using the monochrome to illustrate plot and exposition, before switching to the pleasing and visually arresting colour. This allows cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin, responsible for the beautifully realised colour and composition in Wong Kar-wai’s ever gorgeous In the Mood for Love, to take over.
Through their combined efforts, Hsien and Ping Bin craft is not a complicated and intricately detailed story, but rather a sensory event, a buffet for our eyes to absorb and consume, to relish and dine upon. This is a cinema of feeling, not of fact and it is ever present in both Ping Bin and Hsien’s work. It extends beyond the painstakingly choreographed and stylised visuals though and arrives too in the form of Lim Giong’s score.
Using native and traditional instruments and intricately interweaving them with the visuals, Giong’s music creates rhythm within scenes and creates an underlay, which allows a general atmosphere to emerge within scenes and the film as a whole. They seem to bleed from scene to scene whilst emphasising and amplifying the cinematography and general direction. Some of these pieces are obvious but affective – drums focusing on the physicality of assassination attempts – whilst others are somewhat disorientating and surprising – the musical accompaniment to the film’s close.
This combination of visual and audio elements fuses most wonderfully to realise a work that has clearly been meticulously laid out visually from the mind of Hsien, collaborating with men in Ping Bin and Giong, with whom he has a long standing relationship, to create a piece that runs like clockwork. It ticks over ever so carefully until the final frames of the film. It is true cinematic craftsmanship at its absolute finest.
However, while this world of deep colours and vibrant sounds has been successfully realised on one level, its methods are perhaps not for all. At an hour and forty minutes, the film doesn’t sound long at all, in its effort to allow the audience to ‘feel the film’ as it were; you can very much feel every single second tick by. By taking its time to analyse and showcase all of the work and effort and every beautiful costume, every luxurious colour, every musical element, The Assassin can be viewed as a rather dry event.
The plot is rather mundane, routine even, leading some perhaps to think that while the visuals are breath-taking and the sound masterful, the events are dull and uninspired. This is not an unusual trait of the director whose previous works also move at a similarly slow, deliberate pace. Frankly, for many, this will be too slow. It is a film which keeps its distance, not only in terms of a relationship between its audience and its artistry, but also with its characters.
Rarely is there a close-up, with Hsien’s camera focusing more on shooting through natural filters like silk and gauze, to create wondrous ambiences of purple and red or filming landscapes of company’s moving through fields. In fact, we are close to the end of it all before we do see a close-up of the face of our heroine that isn’t obscured or entirely covered. It is only then that true emotion is shown in the films relatively barren narrative. This is not to necessarily be viewed as a negative though.
What is being conveyed through this distance is a theme of restriction, of suppression of one’s true feelings and one’s true self. This melodramatic tendency surfaces through the colours, through the music and through the direction, the character’s often looking longingly into the distance, pondering, considering. Who are they? What is their true identity?
The answer? They are all stuck in roles dictated to them by superiors, leaders and masters. Many of these characters are becoming that same thing that they serve, but that they deep down loathe. They are locked in a destructive cycle, one that is symbolised through an early prop; a jade circle, perfectly broken in the middle. It is a symbol of the connection to the land of Weibo and of the broken lineage that has preceded the characters with betrothals, betrayals and the quest of unity and conquest, with the obsession with power that comes with that quest.
This cycle is self-destructive and many of the characters, it seems, have already succumbed, while others face a choice of whether they need continue this path or whether they can liberate themselves. It is a reminder of the Buddhist concept of the eight hells and particularly the final hell. As the opening graphic of the Hong Kong undercover gangster epic Infernal Affairs puts it: “The worst of the Eight Hells is called Continuous (Avici) Hell. It has the meaning of Continuous Suffering. Thus the name.”
This continuous suffering is presented particularly within the character of Tian Ji’an whose past still haunts him and whose mistakes he in turn still makes, and which dooms him to continuous suffering throughout. Indeed his eternal struggle seems to be whether to consolidate his own power in Weibo or expand against the imperial forces. Should he be a big fish in a small pond forever or does he take the gamble and risk everything for the chance at even greater glories?
He is stuck in the same debate for the entire film and long before and after it no doubt. His is arguably the most compelling of The Assassin’s narratives. Often his scenes are laced with the colour red, which in Chinese culture symbolises joy and fortune. It is deployed ironically here for the man who has everything as governor of the region and yet somehow, has nothing. This is not to belittle Yinniang’s own personal journey, one which is rife with self-discovery and understanding. Hers though is much more subtle, and journey’s through a number of personas; the titular assassin, the princess, the hero, the villain. In the end her journey’s conclusion will pit her against, and yet simultaneously link her forever with, Tian Ji’an.
What The Assassin is, is a sensory event, and it should be experienced as such; a carefully constructed and time consuming piece of art which has been crafted from the mind of Hou Hsiao-Hsien. True, it can be a long process to digest and, to some, even endure, but its rewards are plentiful, a story of pain and loss which is not so much told in a literal sense but understood through symbolism and intricate cinematic devices. It is the craft, the way it is realised and the way it is executed that sets The Assassin apart.