I honestly think that there will be no better film this year than Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin. The director conveys a deep and powerful understanding of everything that is human, and he captures this in a film that seems catered to those with enough patience for the themes to be completely felt. And as each sequence falls upon the previous one — creating a complex yet still fully comprehensible narrative — we can feel the weight of the characters’ emotions; we feel their journey and the rollercoaster of feelings they experience throughout the film. Both the cinematography and the music allow these sensations to be felt at the bottom of your soul.
The Assassin is first and foremost a sensorial film, beginning with a black and white segment introducing the protagonist Nie Yinniang (Qi Shu), an expert killer. She has been trained by a nun who lives in a temple high up in the mountains, and in the first scene, we see them converse about the missions through gorgeous monochrome tones featuring the white faces against the dark environment. We are also given “the rules of the game,” at least in terms of the assassin’s abilities, as she seems to move around with little weight — just like the old (and sometimes recent) Wuxia films of the 70s onwards.
The wuxia genre had a moment of mainstream success when it came to the Oscar winner Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and The Assassin follows a certain tradition of big name auteurs tackling the genre in a deconstructive manner. Modern filmmakers follow the rules and lore behind the crazy martial arts antics of these old movies (and books, in which most of these movies are based), while they build and focus on other elements as well. Directors like Ang Lee, Wong Kar-wai and Hou Hsiao-Hsien attract their viewers through the Wire-Fu jumps, the swordplay and the magnificent fight choreography to express the importance of love, loyalty, family and the place where you most belong. The Assassin falls right into this “genre” of fake-out wuxia.
The reveal of the film’s opening title, once it fades out of a black and white shot, is among the most gorgeous that has ever been produced: a marshy landscape with water, trees in the backgrounds and the red sunset that tints everything in sight. By highlighting the contrast between the redness of the background with the yellow credits, the director brings the whole thing around. It’s an explosion of red color (as the rest of the movie continues to be) after what had been a constricted palette (yet still beautiful). However, it’s the shift to color that is breathtaking. The use of the color red has been mentioned a lot in reviews since the Cannes premiere, and while another mention may be tiring, it is among the best uses of that color in the history of cinema. It rivals Dario Argento’s Suspiria, in my humble opinion.
It’s not just the attentive imagery of cinematographer Ping Bin Lee that demands attention in The Assassin, but also the convoluted yet still relatable narrative, as well as the framing. More times than not, it conveys important information that will go unnoticed by those not paying attention. The spatial choreography, art direction and production design speak volumes about the situation of the characters — where they stand in the hierarchy, what they want and how they process the same information that we take in as viewers. There is a long sequence shot through veils and curtains; a decision that only makes sense once the shot has remained on screen for over five minutes while someone tells a story, thus giving us the background of the crisis that is being lived at the moment. Never before has exposition looked so good.
But what The Assassin achieves over anything else is how it internally follows the logic of the extreme portrayal of emotions, especially when the faces of the actors and characters remain still, as it is through the body language that they are revealed. This isn’t only restricted to the fight sequences between people in love, or masked individuals, but also in the way that characters stand or sit, or how they move their arms. It’s the kind of ‘blocking’ that is present in most Robert Bresson films, and Hou Hsiao-Hsien takes a millimetric approach to actor direction and movement inside the frame. He uses the actors as mannequins or “models” — another prop — hence the deadpan faces in most of the Chinese actors.
One could think of The Assassin as a cinephile’s film, as it contains a visual language that requires a trained eye, but nonetheless, with the still attributes of the acting and the overall length of the shots, the film is still highly entertaining for most audiences, especially if they don’t expect a fight to occur every two minutes. In a way, the film reminded me of Once Upon a Time in China, which is considered one of the best Kung Fu films of all time, a film that spends most of its length in negotiations and conversations. Sure, there’s some astounding martial arts work in The Assassin, but it’s not just that. It’s also a fantasy. The film uses elements of magic and the concept of wuxia itself, which is akin to that of a supernatural world that is ordered under otherworldly rules of physics.
And it is with a heavy heart that once the Chinese master’s film ends, we leave the theater with the sensation that everything is futile, and that when we are controlled by our inner senses, we are both oblivious to the harm that others can do to us. But at the same time, however, we attract that harm, and even if we don’t care, it can still hurt.
Jaime Grijalba (@jaimegrijalba) is from Chile and has been writing about film, literature, videogames and culture for the past six years. He’s also preparing his first feature-length film, since he’s a filmmaker too (or wants to be at least).