Stars: Qi Shu, Chen Chang, Satoshi Tsumabuki, Shao-Huai Chang, Nikki Hsin-Ying Hsieh, Ethan Juan, Zhen Yu Lei, Fang Mei, Dahong Ni, Jacques Picoux, Fang-yi Sheu, Chun Shih, Mei Yong, Yun Zhou | Written by Hsiao-Hsien Hou, Hai-Meng Hsieh, Cheng Ah | Directed by Hsiao-Hsien Hou
“That man poisoned his father, he killed his own brother. His guilt condemns him.”
The Assassin, Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s painterly spell of a film, tells the tale of a too-merciful assassin tasked by her tutor with her own cousin’s murder. Nie Yinniang, portrayed with aching affect by Shu Qui, is a woman consummately skilled at an art the practice of which has broken her heart. She kills with balletic precision, opening the film with the understated murder of a corrupt government official as he rides in the countryside with his retinue. Even in the act of killing she projects a sense of listless melancholy, and when she stays her hand on her next assignment her stern Taoist nun of a master decides that pitting her against her family is the only way to purify Nie Yinniang of her doubts.
The film’s plot is bare and straightforward. What flesh clings to its skeleton is gleaned from oblique asides in circuitous courtly conversations, vital details introduced and left behind at speed. The rest is sound and motion, stillness and silence. The Assassin’s action sequences don’t erupt so much as ebb and flow, intruding on life with a seamlessness which suggests the everyday reality of violence in a realm riddled with corruption and ruled by uneasy warriors. Nie Yinniang’s duel with a masked assailant, perhaps a shadowy doppleganger representing her distaste for her own lethality, is indicative of the sudden, ethereal quality of most of the film’s fight scenes. A few allusions to a deeper sickness wend their way through The Assassin in touches like the silent alchemist, nails clawlike and face ravaged, who withstands an execution attempt in a grotesque reminder that bloodshed cannot staunch bloodshed but instead spills endlessly out from itself, a fractal stain no depth of scrutiny can explain.
The setting, Weibo Province in Northern China, is a place of yearning. Wind sighs and whispers through the trees and down the arcades of Chang Chen’s country estate while cicadas drone, announcing summer or its death, and the building itself groans and settles like a restless ghost. Night is absolute, day a washed-out splendor of muted colors and humdrum daily life. The film lives in these moments as much as it lives in the binding and secretive performance Shu Qui brings to the screen. By turns inscrutable and painfully direct, The Assassin finds a bleak point of contrast between Nie Yinniang’s obvious desire to return to the world of human connection and her simultaneous ability to creep like a spider through that same world, plucking life from the bodies of the people who live there. Her pain at seeing her cousin’s life, at watching his son play and his wife and pregnant concubine struggle for pride of place, is naked and raw without a single word of explanation.
Nie Yinniang has been condemned by her training to live in the shadows. The nun who instructed her, her mother’s sister I believe, is firm in her belief that corruption must be met with the sword. Her serene certitude feels monumental next to her pupil’s earthly fears and weaknesses, but the nun’s inner peace breeds only monstrosity. It is in inner conflict, The Assassin tells us, in the willingness to destroy the self in pursuit of love and connection, that a chance for peace exists. When Nie Yinniang abandons Weibo to flee with her father, a disgraced minister of her cousin’s court, she turns her back not just on her tutor (the duel between the two is gorgeously understated, a flurry of black and white and the sound of leaves crunching beneath their feet) but on the pleasures and sorrows of Chang Chen’s court. In a way her outsider status, communicated constantly by Hsiao-Hsien’s expert use of drapes, windows, shadow, and doorways, has given her a chance to see a number of her own potential lives and to chart a new course away from the follies therein.
The Assassin is not a cheerful movie. Nie Yinniang’s self-imposed exile at her father’s side begins in privation and looks likely to remain there. She has no skills beyond death-dealing and he none beyond courtly acumen, but both have rejected the selves others crafted for them, forsaking the tangled loyalties and too-easy absolutism of the world of priests and noblemen for the bottomless uncertainty of the wider world. A film with restraint enough to tell its story for the pure joy of the art is a rare gift, and The Assassin does so while painting a picture of human frailty and love that transcends even its own fairy tale wonders.
The Assassin is released in the UK on January 22nd 2016.