I mentioned The Assassin yesterday, when I posted a 20-year old essay I'd written on Tsui Hark. My entry into wuxia films came via Hark and the London Film Festival; the offbeat The Butterfly Murders and Zu: Warriors Of Magic Mountain, and they seemed to trigger the explosion of Hong Kong cinema in Britain and elsewhere in the Eighties. I mentioned in my review of Hark's The Lovers its slow pace, a real change from the frantic action and cutting we associate with wuxia, and it is against that tradition that I watched the The Assassin.
Hong Kong swordplay is easier to follow these days, the production values are more Hollywood, the pace more classic, the storytelling more linear. In that context, Hou Hsiao-Hsien seems to be working almost with a deconstruction of the genre, yet one done as if creating its ultimate apex. It looks both outward and extremely inward at the same time; as I watched the long and wrenchingly beautiful shots of landscape, and the slow takes, even in action scenes, I found myself thinking of Bresson's Lancelot du Lac, which took its epic heroism and brought it down to a realistic, dirty, creaking and slow stereogramme, as if to take apart filmmaking as well as the myth it purveys. His knights are just simple people in tin suits, clanking around a landscape on which Bresson's camera lingers long after they've left the shot.
In a similar way, Hou's landscape transcends those marching through it. But rather than being reduced, it is magnified in beauty, highlighted and savoured. It is something that will last. In great westerns, the landscape is something bigger than man, threatening not least for the other men it contains. In John Ford movies men move through it as if on their way to conquer or tame it. But here we are presented with the definite picture of something that will endure long after the machinations of Chinese courts and the battling of deadly fighters has passed. Ford's audience knew the west had been conquered. Hou's knows that for centuries, the landscape has endured.
In ninth-century China, Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi) is an assassin, trained by nuns to kill officials deemed corrupt or dangerous by the court. But she fails to kill one such target, because he is holding his infant son, and even though he takes a parting shot at her, which she parries, she leaves him. The mother superior is angry, and as punishment sends Nie back to Weibo, the most powerful province in the empire, where she wants the governor Tian Ji'ang (Chang Chen) killed. But Nie was once betrothed to Tian, before her family gave her up to the nuns. She heads to Waibo, and when she arrives the film changes: in a Wizard of Oz moment the high-contrast black and white (Nie's black outfit and her mistresses white garb work like a glorious take on western cliche) in 'Academy' ratio (1.375:1) changes to colour and widescreen 1.85:1. Shots are framed like paintings or screens, and held for appreciation, not just of Mark Lee Ping Bing's camerawork, but of the landscapes themselves.
The story now becomes one of Nie's inner discovery, defying her mistress and finding ways to maintain her inner self as she does. At times the story, slow as it is, becomes hard to follow: there is much plotting, debating, and ambiguity in the intrigue of China's hierarchy. In effect, Nie's newfound strength is the one sure thing in the film.
The Assassin is a showcase for Lee's camerawork, and especially for Shu Qi, whose performance as the quiet heroine brings a touch of the Clint Eastwood while suggesting inner turmoil underneath the cool skill. It's worthy of awards, and will resonate to any audience. Within the visual beauties of landscape, interiors, and costumes whose tones seem to echo the characters' emotions while maintaining a sense of distance, Hou Hsiao-Hsien's take on wuxia is both captivating and thought-provoking.