I’ll be honest, the cinema of Taiwan has been a pretty big blind spot for me for a variety of reasons, some of them out of my control. The biggest reason is almost certainly availability, which is a problem that a lot of Chinese language movies outside of the martial arts genre tend to have. For example, I love Edward Yang’s movie Yi Yi (one of the few Chinese language movies to have gotten the Criterion treatment) but for the life of me can’t seem to find any of his other movies anywhere. Meanwhile, my exposure to his countryman Tsai Ming-liang has been limited in part because I was scared off by a misguided screening of his film What Time is it There? which is a film I admittedly might have liked better if I went in with different expectations but which I frankly found rather boring. The reasons for my limited exposure to Hou Hsiao-Hsien (that’s roughly pronounced “ho shao shen”) have been pretty similar to my reasons for missing out on Edward Yang’s work: very limited availability. You go onto Netflix right now (this is their disc service I’m talking about, not their more limited streaming library) and you’ll only find four of his movies available. That’s better than their Edward Yang selection (which is nothing but Yi Yi) but it’s kind of a misleading number just the same as some of these DVDs feature really poor transfers that kind of make you not want to bother (as was the case when I tried to rent his film Puppetmaster only to then turn it off because it seemed to be in the wrong aspect ratio). All this is to say that The Assassin, which won the Best Director award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, is my first Hou Hsiao-Hsien movie and I was kind of going in blind to the greater context of his work, which may have been a problem.
The film is set in the 9th century in a Northern Chinese province called Weibo which had been established about a century earlier by the Imperial court as a buffer between central China and the various barbarian invaders. This region’s ties to the Emperor are tenuous and it is currently being ruled by a general named Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen), whose rule is thrown into chaos when he discovers that a female assassin has been coming after him. This assassin, Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), has been trained from a young age by a nun named Jiaxin (Fang-Yi Sheu) to go out and eliminate corruption… a bit like the assassins in “Assassin’s Creed.” As the film goes on it becomes clear that this killer has complicated feelings about this assignment and that she may have had a connection with this latest target at one point in her life.
The Assassin has a story that is simultaneously very simple and very complicated. If told in broad strokes the film basically feels like a fairy tale but this is hidden under a thick layer of court intrigue and ancient Chinese politics that can be a little tricky to parse, especially for Western audiences who lack a lot of the historical context that the film requires. Some of the film’s character, particularly Tian Ji’an, do have real historical analogues and the story seems to have been previously tread in an ancient story called “Nie Yinniang,” and I suspect that the filmmakers may have expected audiences to have some familiarity with this legend. Additionally, the film isn’t always super generous with the exposition and characters occasionally talk to each other in a semi-cryptic manner.
Having said all that, I don’t really think storytelling is the point of The Assassin rather I’d say that this is mostly meant to be a formal exercise. In fact it kind of reminded me of anther recent film that also won the Best Director award at The Cannes Film Festival, Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive in that it’s a movie that makes certain overtures towards action cinema while remaining a rather slow paced and moody affair filled with people staring into space and ruminating about… stuff. That isn’t to say that fans of that movie will necessarily like this one, but its objectives seem to be in the same place. The thing is, the film’s formal elements here struck me as interesting rather than good or engaging. The film was shot in the old Academy ratio aside from two seemingly random shots of a woman playing a stringed instrument which expand out to 1.85:1. We’ve been seeing a lot of Academy ratio movies recently and I really don’t get why, modern theaters are not equipped to do them justice and nothing about a period wuxia film like this seems to call for the sense of claustrophobia that the ratio can sometimes give.
The movie is certainly colorful, at least outside of the first fifteen minutes which are in black and white, and the film’s camera placement is often interesting, and while the film certainly isn’t trying to appeal to action fans there are some fight scenes in it that play out fairly interestingly. I’ve been very careful to avoid just saying “this is boring and I don’t get it” because there is certainly something interesting to be found in the filmmaking on display but truth be told this was not a movie I found very engaging on a whole. I can’t help but compare the film to another admittedly more conventional wuxia film from a Taiwanese filmmaker of a different type, Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and can’t help but find this newer film to be eminently less beautiful and less engaging by comparison. That said I’m willing to concede that I might just be missing something here. I don’t know Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s work and I don’t know a lot of the cultural background involved in this film and that information might have helped me see this thing in a different context, then again maybe I’m not missing anything and the emperor really does have no clothes. Either way I’m willing to give this another chance someday but until then I’m inclined to write this off as “not for me.”
**1/2 out of Four