(Hou Hsiao Hsien, 2015)
I love seeing the world through Hou Hsiao Hsien's eyes.
But that means slowing down, paying attention, giving oneself to the images.
His mastershot style is quiet and still and precise, and it magnifies nuance and gesture. Once you become attuned, it gives certain scenes incredible power. I suppose the flip-side to this is that if you do not become attuned, then his films must seem unbearably tedious.
The Assassin is a nuxia - an entry in the "female knight" sub-genre in the Kung Fu genre. It stars Hou muse Shu Qi as Yianning, banished from her home province as a girl to save herself after she reacts badly to some inter-family politics. In the interim she has been trained as a deadly assassin, but she lacks the ruthlessness required of the profession, although her skills are "matchless". Her Mistress dispatches her back to her home province and back to her family, where she is to kill the Ruler of the province (Chang Chen), to whom Yianning was once betrothed. This is both punishment and test, and embroils the assassin in the complex court politics of 7th Century China.
Aside from some text at the start, there is very little exposition explaining this, and what does come is mostly revealed in two quiet conversations, around a half-hour into the film. Hou is insisting that an audience pay attention to this film, that you must strain even to attain the most basic comprehension of the plot. His elliptical storytelling makes that difficult at times, especially where the internecine plotting is involved, but the broad strokes of the story and the characters are quite simple.
Shu Qi's character is still in love with Chang Chen's, and the only question really is how she will deal with the consequences of her actions (or inaction).
When other Chinese auteurs have taken on the wuxia genre, from Wong Kar Wai to Zhang Yimou, each of them bows to the stylistic conventions. Not Hou. Yes he features martial arts fights, but they are as elliptical as everything else here. The editing rhythms may change - quiet a jarring, if exhilarating, new development in his oeuvre - but these never feel like fights for their own sake. Yianning may be a matchless warrior, but she takes no pleasure in her skill, and her moves are efficient and precise, reminiscent more of samurai swiftness and finality than much I've seen in the wuxia genre. Hou shoots her in different ways in each fight; in an unusually tight mid-shot for one, her athleticism obscured (a decision he insists was due to Shu Qi's inadequacies as a martial artist), barely glimpsed in another, her opponents toppling like skittles from her limbs, in an elegant dance-like exchange in a battle with a golden-masked female assassin for yet another. And sometimes he doesn't shoot her at all; he cuts away from one fight to a long shot so that we can barely glimpse it among some distant trees, and stages another off-screen, lingering instead on another two characters. Her performance is quiet and contained but it gathers a great deal of power as the story develops. Chang Chen - always a charismatic presence - is allowed to show more obvious emotion, but his best scene is the one where he quietly confides in his concubine about who Yianning is, what she might mean to him evident in his voice and face.
This is a mesmerising, mysterious film, heavy with repressed emotion, its characters bounded by the social structures represented so beautifully by the period finery all around them, and also by Hou's lovely framing. Only Yianning is really free to choose her fate, and Shu Qi is accordingly the character we follow as she moves through and across the screen throughout the film, alone but at liberty.
All this and I have not mentioned what most reviewers focus on: this is a startlingly beautiful film. It is also an at-times-forbiddingly arty one. But worthwhile.