Those unfamiliar with the work of Hou Hsiao-Hsien but whose interest in The Assassin has been piqued by the buzz and awards it received on the festival circuit last year might do well to research what they’re getting themselves into. Cards on the table; I was one of those people. I’ve not seen his previous work and my prep for this one amounted to a handful of rapturous paragraphs read nearly a year ago online and one look at the trailer. A trailer which suggests a far more kinetic film than the one lying in wait.
Our excursion here to 9th century China does not take us to the same destinations as the populist action adventures that pirouetted through cinemas around a decade ago (the likes of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or The House Of Flying Daggers). There are occasional detours to those locations, granted, but the course in general is altogether different. More meditative. For some strenuously deliberate.
The quietude of Hou’s film is one of it’s most disarming and possibly divisive aspects. Taking place in a gorgeous arena of forests, Hou lets the surroundings score the film for much of the running time; the ambient sounds of birds and of tree branches waving in the breeze enveloping the audience. It accentuates the time within the film; making it breathe and stretch. This pays remarkable dividends in the film’s first half particularly, upping the sense of dread and suspense that, at any minute, Hou’s titular assassin might appear from the shadows.
Said assassin is named Yinniang (played here by Shu Qi as a remarkable enigma). The film opens in black and white with three key scenes, which really tell us how the rest of the film will play out. We are shown her singular expertise at removing her targets from this mortal coil. We are shown her perceived weakness in an act of mercy. And we are shown her master responding to that weakness by sending her on a mission seemingly designed as a test. The title card brings us into full colour, and then the film drips like slowly poured honey before the viewer, teasing itself out at a pace so carefully studied as to almost challenge the viewer.
Fortunately, while the pace might be incredibly slow, much of what occurs is elementally interesting. From the depiction of basic traditions of the time period to parables accompanied by sparse music played within scenes, The Assassin stakes itself out as a contemplative experience. It’s unhurried, hushed majesty teeters at times, but everything here feels so precise that you don’t question Hou’s intent. Even if at least half of the picture champions the invocation of it’s time and place over any narrative element.
Qi’s presence is incredible. Though her face appears to give little away, it’s fascinating work trying to interpret the thought processes occurring behind her eyes. Whenever she appears there is a palpable sense that things have intensified. She is like a ghost that’s been stood in the background, disguised. The tiniest step forward announces that she’s been there the whole time. It’s a perfect example of less-is-more.
I’ll freely admit that the meditative nature of The Assassin lured me – or perhaps even hypnotised me – to the point that I lost track of some of the finer narrative elements midway through, as I instead followed by own elliptical thoughts, mesmerised by the languid tone conjured by Hou. It’s an embarrassing thing to admit as a reviewer, but I lost the plot to a certain extent. Still, it’s easily done. The Assassin finds as much import in an inflection or pregnant pause as it does in an expositional speech. Everything you need to work with is there; you just need to participate. I took my eye off the ball for no more than a minute.
If that sounds like hard work, it can be. This is not a film to idly experience. Don’t let it’s stillness deceive you; it will require your cooperation, otherwise it may very easily appear listless or even soulless. I certainly didn’t find that to be the case. If anything it completely changed my state of mind to the point of distraction. I haven’t felt so calmly changed by a film since Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.
That said, high tolerance levels will be required. This is, if you’ll forgive the crassness of the following comment, genre cinema presented as high art and if you’ve not got the patience for that level of austerity being applied to this kind of tale then you’re going to have some trouble. Still, the quiet beauty of the film is a trick in and of itself; keeping the pace running on fumes only accentuates the lightning reflexes exhibited in the brief combat sequences. Here again Qi asserts herself as the film’s intense focal point. Behind those steely eyes one is left to guess at the mass of moral ambiguities she is attempting to untie as she gets closer to her target.
Still, that intensity wanes a little in the second half. As much as it feels at times as though Hou is trying to make an anti-film, his very success threatens to render the entire experience inert. The Assassin doesn’t quite have the same resolute poise as its central character. As such it makes the film easy to appreciate, but far tougher to love. I absolutely want to see it again. I’m not sure I want to see it again soon.