Taiwanese director Hou Hsiou-Hsien, best known for his dedication to social realism, makes his first foray into wuxia – Chinese ancient warrior fiction – with The Assassin. The film competed for the Cannes Palme D'Or, coming away with awards for Best Director and Best Soundtrack, and now comes to grace London's screens.
Set in 8th century China during the Tang Dynasty, Hou's film follows Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi) a young woman who has been raised a killer by her guardian, a nun, and commissioned to return home to kill her cousin, to whom she was once betrothed. Torn between duty and affection for her childhood friend, she wrestles with her emotions in an attempt to carry out the task.
"Abandon the narrative thread...and bask in the aesthetic beauty of the thing"
In comparison to Ang Lee and its high action predecessors, Hou Hsiou-Hsien's first attempt at emanating the wuxia genre beats to a very different drum. Fixed perspective shots and extremely long takes might make the experience feel static compared with the likes of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but The Assassin is not patience-testing: as viewers, we are practically encouraged rather to abandon the narrative thread, and to bask instead the aesthetic beauty of the thing (a good thing too, for it's often hard to keep up with Hou's famously elliptical storytelling – or as he puts it, "I don’t mind if people don’t understand my films").
Every scene is skilfully composed, richly dressed and impossibly gorgeous. Hou makes full use of his compact 4:3 aspect ratio – static, his actors resemble a beautifully positioned chess board, and when they move, they glide in and out of the frame like dancers on a stage.
Beguiling in its ambiguity
The interiors are lavishly adorned, paying homage to the kingly courts of the past. The simple picture of servants drawing a bath is painted so sensually that Hou almost transports his viewers to this world of reverent luxury: a sense of authenticity pervades throughout the film.
Stillness and quiet abound to make those brief moments of violent action all the more arresting: the swish of a sword or the slice of a dagger ring out into the cicada-sung night: so fleeting they could have been imagined.
Shu Qi puts in a passionate performance as the intoxicatingly beautiful but deadly Yinniang, as she weeps into her hands or stands stoically on the threshold of her victim. Chang Chen, too, as Yinniang's cousin and target, manages an understated yet hypnotic performance as no-nonsense ruler, expressing his rage through not words but rapid gestures; complementing Yinniang's every downturned gaze with a vicious thrust of his fist. Supernatural elements, too, gently interweave with the ostensibly political plot of the tale, increasingly beguiling in their ambiguity.
Deeply passionate and authentic
Hou's elliptical storytelling might put some off, but the experience is cathartic, gentle and beautiful, deeply passionate and authentic. Those unfamiliar with Hou's work may be expecting a more coherent narrative or faster paced action: but his latest work is a thing of beauty that needs to be seen to be believed.
|What||The Assassin film review "lavish and beguiling"|
|Where||Various Locations | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Leicester Square (underground)|
22 Jan 16 – 22 Mar 16, times vary
|Price||£ determined by cinema|
|Website||Click here to go to the film's IMDB page|