"The way of the sword is without compassion"
It’s becoming harder and harder for small foreign films like ‘The Assassin’ to reach cinemas across the seas, unless they are very good and attract critical acclaim from across the globe. So naturally my expectations going into this latest martial arts film from director Hou Hsiao-Hsien were going to be rather high. Could it live up to them?
In 8th century China, having failed to slay a corrupt government official out of compassion, a trained killer is sent on a new mission as penance and to test her resolve. A ruthless assignment to a distant province where she is tasked to kill its governor whom she was once betrothed to.
That may sound like a straightforward plot but ‘The Assassin’ is not a film I fully understood. For starters the titular assassin is rarely in the film as the focus gradually shifts to her target and the people surrounding him. She is there as a looming presence, occasionally springing ambushes, eavesdropping from the shadows and surveying the scene. I theorised that maybe the audience becomes the assassin, taking her place as we observe the environment in its normal state, knowing what they do not, that a deadly threat awaits. Take that theory as you will, it just caught my attention halfway through the movie and stuck with me.
Another misconception is that the film moves forward at a blissfully slow pace, almost revelling in its digressive nature. It methodically observes each character and their surroundings at such a steady pace that all by themselves the seemingly normal shots become contemplative and existential. They are stunning on a visual level, radiating with natural beauty shot in 35mm. It’s a good thing that they are so unhurried in their pace because it’s the amount of time you need to soak in every last detail of the images appearing on the screen.
The fact that a majority of the film is staged in an unusually elliptic style means that the story becomes increasingly hard to follow, you’re almost too enchanted by the visuals to pay attention. Normally that could be construed as a criticism, but for reasons that almost escape me it just seems to work here. Maybe because it draws you into the central themes of the movie, encouraging you to look at the big existential picture rather than meaningless political manoeuvres as ultimately that is what the film concerns itself with. It is a study of humanity against duty and it wants you to notice that. But again that’s just my theory.
I have to keep emphasising my own personal interpretation of the film because ‘The Assassin’ is most definitely a film to be studied and deduced individually, there are multiple meanings to this film. It transports you into the era and submerses you within it, rather than asking you to pass judgement on the events you are watching it simply asks that you observe them, then decide whether to condemn or condone, much like the role of the assassin.
I’ve spoken about her a lot, but let’s really talk about Yinniang, the assassin. Played by Qi Shu she moves and speaks with such conviction and confidence that one is never in doubt of her skills as a killer. In her first scene she effortlessly dispatches a target and throughout the film tackles trained guards and soldiers with ease.
What is very striking is how Yinniang rapidly becomes an empathetic character while saying and doing very little. Most of this is down to the way Hsiao-Hsien shoots her, the director rarely fetishizes her actions or glorifies them, he evokes a pure sense that she is not revelling within the violence and bloodshed (of which there is little to none), she is simply carrying out her duty. With the simplest of shots he establishes that Yinniang is at a crossroads and facing an existential crisis of sorts, torn between commitment and mercy. Hsiao-Hsien is far from experienced in the martial arts genre, and it shows as this is far from a traditional martial arts film. The question remains whether he has simply crafted an interesting experiment or an endearing innovation, but I think I know which one.
While ‘The Assassin’ is undoubtedly not for everyone, it is a beautiful and contemplative film of endless fascination.