Some saw Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin in the main competition at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, where Hou picked up a cool “Best Director” distinction. Others will see the film in the grand halls of Lincoln Center during the 53rd New York Film Festival. Others still will see the film at the no less respectable Room 3 of Dongguan Yingyuan, behind the mall.
Regardless of the venue, this film needs to be seen on a big screen. Hou and his cinematographer Lee Ping-Bing have done it again, spinning light and movement into poetry and creating a gorgeous martial arts film the likes of which is rarely seen, especially in wide release in China. Don’t be fooled: it’s a tremendous treat for a film of this distinction to be playing at your local multiplex for 60 kuai. For the same money you could see the remake of Bride Wars starring Angelababy. Your call. But let the introversion of this movie review impress upon you the following: if you love going to the movies but too oft lament that everything in the theaters is a pile of damp garbage, you are getting thrown a bone. A beautiful, juicy, visual masterwork of a bone.
Hou Hsiao-Hsien, one of the godfathers of Taiwanese New Wave cinema, rose to international acclaim in the mid-'80s for his coming-of-age series: meditative, melancholic portraits of unsettled youth and Taiwanese cross-strait family politics. In mid-career, Hou Hsiao-Hsien found a muse in cheek-boney ingénue Shu Qi, who starred in 2001’s Millennium Mambo and 2005’s Three Times, both stories of displaced longing set in various moments of Taiwan's modern history. Now, after nine years in the making, Shu Qi rides again in The Assassin, stripped down and physically expressive as the titular character of few words, a solemn gait... and a deadly purpose.
The Assassin is based loosely on the Tang epic Nie Yinniang, and follows Shu Qi’s "woman in black" of noble birth who has been trained from childhood to swiftly and sleekly slay rogue government officials. (Hmmm.) When dispatched by the Imperial Court to off the renegade Governor of Weibo (Chang Chen, Shu’s co-star in Three Times), she faces a crisis of conviction and an unsettling of bygone affection.
The Assassin is set in the late Tang Dynasty, an era exquisitely served by Hou’s meticulous and lushly appointed mise en scène. The costumes and production design are outrageously beautiful, and Lee’s frame remains steadfastly disciplined among endless subtle movement — billowing silk curtains, the distorting smokes of candles and incense, the sway of branches and grasses. The natural landscapes, shot in the mountains and forests of Taiwan and Hubei Province, are even more thrilling than the interiors, sweeping and profound, but always of this world.
The story and historical conceit, while compelling enough to quietly drive the visuals, are hardly the film’s strength. In fact, none of the headlining factors can really outdo the beauty of the photographic composition and daring cinematic design. Those who see the film expecting a martial arts spectacle will be disappointed: Hou’s minimal wuxia choreography reads as almost clumsily realistic compared the slick whiplash and effortless-seeming fighting in films of the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon stripe. Those who see the film expecting Shu Qi’s gorgeous pout and effortless sex appeal will have to settle for a lot of shadowy lurking and a hint of clavicle. As a killer, her face is bare of makeup, resolute, groundless, and seemingly capable of changing history.
Catch The Assassin (aka 聂隐娘 Nie Yinniang) at any major movie theater. Sanlitun Megabox has it through tomorrow Thursday, September 10, and other theaters have it up through September 15. Check here for remaining screenings around town.