The best martial arts film of the year comes from the unlikeliest of sources: Hou Hsiao-Hsien, the 68-year-old Taiwanese director whose work is little known outside of cinephile circles here in the States, but whose four-decade career has made him one of international cinema’s true titans.
Hou is a filmmaker of slow, methodical, painterly dramas that are often concerned with Taiwan’s relationship between its cultural/political past and its present, though in recent years, he has expanded his purview to tackle that theme more universally through projects set in Japan (2003’s Café Lumiere) and France (2007’s Juliette Binoche-headlined Flight of the Red Balloon). For his latest, The Assassin, for which he won Best Director at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, he travels back in time to 9th century China during the reign of the Tang Dynasty for a saga about a trained killer on a covert mission—a premise that finds Hou working in a distinctly genre-y vein, even as he warps familiar conventions to his own unique, astounding ends.
That’s apparent from Hou’s opening black-and-white shot, which commences with a pair of donkeys at a hillside tree before panning to black-clad Nie Yinniang (favorite Hou leading lady Shu Qi, in a mesmerizing near-silent performance) and her white-robed mentor Jiaxin (Sheu Fang-yi) as the latter gives the former an order to dispatch an unidentified man with bird-like swiftness. This scene proceeds at a calm, contemplative pace, only to then be shattered by a sudden attack—in this instance, Yinniang leaping, spinning mid-air, and slicing the throat of her target, who tumbles, partially out of focus, from his steed. That interplay between deliberate inaction and fleet conflict defines The Assassin, which operates as if it were a dream, employing Hou’s trademark long takes and unhurried camera movements to lull one into a trance, the better to then deliver thrills through jolts of measured, expertly choreographed violence.
Hou’s combat sequences feature more edits than he’s known for, but The Assassin’s style is far removed from typical Hollywood standards. Rather, he cuts his clashes with unconventional ellipses that give them an almost ethereal quality. That, in turn, attunes the action to Yinniang, embodied by Shu with the same sort of meticulous efficiency of movement and expression that characterizes the film’s direction.
The basic storyline involves Yinniang being sent by Jiaxin to her hometown of Weibo in order to kill the governor Lord Tian Ji’an (Cang Chen), who’s Yinniang’s cousin, and who—as we later learn—was once supposed to marry Yinniang, until a more advantageous political union for Lord Tian took precedence. That narrative outline, however, is almost beside the point to Hou. Plot details about Yinniang, Lord Tian, and the political tensions between Weibo and the Imperial Court emerge from lengthy monologues about unseen people and long-ago events, but they’re of little practical consequence, as following the play-by-play of this tale is secondary to immersing oneself in its patient rhythms and peerless beauty.
Working with regular cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bing, Hou drenches the proceedings in painstaking period details that convey the lush opulence of Lord Tian’s domicile and dress, and which are given additional emphasis by Hou’s protracted takes, which can go on for minutes at a time. Whether focusing on servants arranging a princess’ elaborate hairstyle with pins, or on a group of maidens preparing a bath for Yinniang, the film proves as interested in the mundane as the magnificent—or, rather, it finds the magnificent in virtually everything upon which it gazes. Thus, the sight of a towering mountainside bifurcated by a deep chasm (from which tiny foreground riders emerge), or of mist swirling around a pool of water reflecting the shore’s line of trees, takes on a mythic grandeur. Whether during confrontations or moments of tranquility, and never more so than during an extended rendezvous between Lord Tian and his mistress that’s shot from behind a gauzy, swaying curtain, The Assassin is one of the most purely gorgeous movies in recent years.
If Hou’s aesthetic techniques are impressive in their own right, they also serve his themes. Yinniang’s quest is one that compels her to confront the bitterness and anger she still harbors over not marrying Lord Tian. Hou’s visuals operate in harmony with that push-pull between the past and the present in myriad, subtle ways, including the contrast between the intro’s black-and-white and the rest of the action’s vibrant color, as well as the director’s decision (save for a single, breathtaking widescreen flashback) to use a boxy 1.41:1 aspect ratio that harkens back to an earlier 1.33:1 “Academy Ratio” era. Just as Hou likes to shoot his actors in doorways to imply that they’re trapped by social/historical forces, so too do The Assassin’s more constricting formal dimensions express the way in which Yinniang remains hemmed in by her complicated emotions over bygone incidents.
Moreover, that old school framing suggests that Hou is concerned with the continuing influence of the martial arts movie, and how its roots are at once ancient and modern. Hou treats his genre with reverence, choreographing Yinniang’s fights with a blend of balletic grace and razor-sharp lethality that’s in keeping with the traditions of wuxia (swordplay) classics like Dragon Gate Inn and The Bride with White Hair (not to mention contemporary variations like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers). At the same time, though, he seems determined to reinvent those films’ familiar customs: one of Yinniang’s battles begins almost out of nowhere, is then spied at a great distance, and ends without any real indication of its result; and another encounter between Yinniang and Lord Tian’s pregnant wife finds the assassin battling a guard just off-screen, and ends without any proper resolution.
Such devices breathe new life into well-known material, and more crucially still, they illustrate movies’ ability to bridge gaps between the old and the new. That relationship might, in a period piece, be somewhat obvious. Yet the greatness of The Assassin is that, in its drawn-out sequences of antiquated rituals and traditions, as well as in its hallucinatory moments of blade-to-blade battle, it diligently conveys a sense of time, and of time’s ceaseless momentum.