The Assassin arrived in UK cinemas last month with a big reputation. It’s the latest film by acclaimed Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien, it earned rave reviews after it was screened during the 2015 Cannes Film Festival – where Hou won the Best Director award – and it figured highly on the majority of the year’s ‘best of’ lists written by critics who had caught it in competition; Sight & Sound recently named it their ‘best film of 2015’. Much of the praise bestowed upon film and director has centred around the abundance of beautiful images, and there are certainly enough here to please anyone with a love of formal, visually-striking cinema, while a deftly-constructed enigmatic aura also had critics foaming at the mouth before collectively putting finger to keyboard. Yet The Assassin‘s elliptical nature means that it has been met with something of a backlash now that more people can finally see it: it is hard to stay abreast of the plot here, even though it’s not impossible to do so, which means it’s no surprise that some critics have broken rank to express their (entirely valid) frustrations with the film. Reports of paying customers walking out of the cinema have also surfaced, which is a shame, even though it’s not the first arthouse film to alienate people and it certainly won’t be the last. It probably hasn’t helped matters that The Assassin‘s trailer leaned heavily on the film’s few, brief martial arts sequences, which perhaps do it a disservice; this is Hou’s first foray into the wuxia genre, yes, but it is much slower and far less reliant on action taking place in the jianghu than, say, Zhang Yimou’s crossover hits Hero and House Of Flying Daggers.
It’s evident from very early on that you’re watching a film in which a lot of care and attention has been given to every single shot. It’s an aesthetically-pleasing work for all sorts of reasons. Shot using a variety of different ratios (the monochrome prologue is in Academy 1:1.37, the rest is at 1:1.41, and Hou makes brief use of an even wider ratio), there are a number of beautiful sequences set inside a governor’s palace, and the work that has gone into the mise-en-scène and the costume design, historically-accurate by all accounts, is indeed impressive; it’s worth a second viewing just to look at the fabrics on show. Hou’s cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin captures a series of luscious shots outdoors, too, with exquisite photography of green fields and forests gracing the picture. A number of slow, tracking shots allow you to drink in the natural beauty. Throughout all of these locations we follow trained assassin Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi) as she undergoes a test set by her master; the main question is whether Nie has the resolve to kill her target and cousin Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen), the military governor of Weibo to whom she was once betrothed. The enigmatic nature of Hou’s film means that Nie’s love for Tian (and the pain caused by their subsequent forced separation) is teased out gradually, and (as far as I could tell) is never explicitly stated, but the two lead performances are successful in conveying their mixed emotions, particularly Shu Qi. The scenes featuring this pair in and around the palace are fascinating, especially as they manage to drive home the story’s nature versus nurture theme as it applies to the titular assassin, who was taken away for training at the age of ten and returns as a 23-year-old woman, but it’s only half the story. Hou emphasises the relationships between Nie and the other female characters just as much, if not more, and they’re more clearly defined. These include Nie’s opponent Lady Tian (Zhou Yun), Tian Ji’ans wife and – as it turns out – a worthy fighting opponent, and Jiaxin (Fang-Yi Sheu), the princess-turned-nun who trained Nie from an early age to become a killer. In fact the film is bookended by scenes that explore the changing relationship between Nie and her master, as clear an indication as any that this is what The Assassin is really about, as opposed to it being Tian Ji’an and Nie’s love story. (Somewhat confusingly Fang-Yi Sheu actually plays two characters, twin sisters, which is perhaps one of the reasons some have found the story confusing.)
Hou’s obtuseness is deliberate, and although I appreciate that many people have no problem coping with the feeling of being lost during a screening, it gnawed away at me and I never felt relaxed enough to enjoy myself — which, after all, is the whole point, right? (I probably should have taken Mark Kermode’s advice; he suggested a lot of viewers would benefit from reading an outline of the plot beforehand, or perhaps by brushing up on their knoweldge of 9th Century Tang period history, culture and society.) In this case my lack of understanding as to who some of the main characters were, or the nature of their relationships with one another, presented a barrier that I couldn’t overcome while watching the film. As with Godard’s Goodbye To Language – another Sight & Sound poll-topper – I was left trying to balance a vague feeling of cinematic inadequacy (when you feel something is flying over your head that has won the adoration of critics) with honest common sense (put simply there’s no right or wrong way to feel about a movie and if you watch enough of them it won’t be long before one frustrates). Everyone reacts to art in different ways and the most important thing – if you’re going to write about it afterwards, at any rate – is to be honest. So yeah, I found The Assassin to be a frustrating experience at times, but I couldn’t possibly dismiss the film outright and I can see why it has been so highly praised. Regardless of anything else The Assassin does look very good indeed. Likely your enjoyment of it will come down to whether or not you’re happy to proceed without a firm grasp on the plot and to simply bathe in its beauty. Of course you can always fill in the gaps by reading about the film before or after you watch it. For what it’s worth I feel fairly sure I’ll enjoy the experience of watching The Assassin more next time, and will get more from it now that I have a slightly better understanding of the story.
Directed by: Hou Hsiao-Hsien.
Written by: Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Chu Tien-wen, Hsieh Hai-Meng, Zhong Acheng.
Starring: Shu Qi, Chang Chen, Zhou Yun, Hsieh Hsin-Ying, Fang-Yi Sheu, Satoshi Tsumabuki, Ethan Juan.
Cinematography: Mark Lee Ping Bin.
Editing: Huang Chih-Chia
Music: Lim Giong.
Running Time: 105 minutes.