Dir. Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Variance from the norm is such a common feature of auteurist cinema that it almost can become expected. From Kubrick to Herzog, cinema goers have become used to the phrase “a unique take on the genre”, be it horror, western, gangster and so on. It has become a game for audience and director alike to show their awareness of the genre conventions, and to note the variances from the norm and how this is in line with the directors own artistic methods and milieu. Which brings me to Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien and his latest film, the exquisitely filmed “Cìkè Niè Yǐnniáng” (The Assassin). Ostensibly a Wuxia martial arts film, people would be better prepared knowing they were watching a Hsiao-Hsien film than a genre defined by flashy personal combat. As such, this film is defined by characteristic long takes, meticulous composition, long periods of stillness and silence, gorgeous cinematography and only fleeting regard to traditional narrative structure and character development. In many ways, I found myself thinking of this as the “Barry Lyndon” (Kubrick, 1975) of Wuxia films.
The story, such as it is, is set in 8th century Tang Dynasty China and concerns the eponymous Nie Yinniang, a young woman taken at the age of 10 and trained as a deadly assassin by a nun-princess. Her targets are corrupt officials in the turbulent internecine conflicts of the Chinese empire at the time. The film begins with a prologue piece shot in crisp, high contrast, black and white that demonstrates the startling skill of the assassin. After failing to complete a mission due to her “heart lacking resolve” her master dispatches her to the troubled Weibo province where she is to kill a warlord – who happens to be her cousin. The conflict of loyalties is further complicated when we learn that the warlord was once betrothed to the assassin. The film then plays out on these conflicts, political, personal and physical, in a series of stunning tableau’s that are more indebted to Hsiao-Hsien’s elliptical style than the requirements of the Wuxia genre.
Everything seems to float or drift in this film, a gesture that seems to become a device, a representation of the ghost-like presence of the assassin and the brief touch on the pages of ancient history that these characters make. The camera, while not making Scorsese-esque winding steadicam moves, is always wafting as if on a slight breeze, observing long takes as if from a respectful distance. Candle flames dance throughout the mise-en-scène, and countless curtains and sheets of gossamer silk flicker and drift in layers within the frame . On more than one occasion a scene is observed from behind a wispy curtain that drifts in and out of focus, obscuring the characters in a silken mist before, imperceptibly, unveiling them again. This device echoes the way narrative and character details are dealt out in this film; nothing is presented directly or as a matter of fact. In the monochrome prologue, we see a warlord watching his child play, first with a ball and then a passing butterfly. Yinniang drops, ghost-like, from the rafters and we cut to the warlord cradling his child – presumably slain, though we do not see the act, only the reactions from the warlord (a contained mix of rage and grief) and the assassin (again contained, seemingly emotionless and cold, but still with something, remorse, guilt, fear, buried inside). Containment of emotions is the dominant form for the characters, with codes and traditions observed with such tenacity that one wonders if there is any individuality in such society. We see this in the way costumes and hair identify people far more than their personalities would, but more importantly in the way Yinniang is a figure under control and duress throughout her life. She is chosen and given to martial arts training as a child, an act that took her from another choice made for her – that of marriage to her cousin, the warlord. As a grown woman, the assassin is still controlled by her master, and it is the initial act of disobedience, an expression of free will in refusing to kill, that leads to her involvement with her cousin and the personal and political battles that will ensue. The combat, which would normally be the centre piece of Wuxia films, are few and fleeting. She either appears and acts with unerring skill, or one of the zen-like stillnesses where characters, and audience, seem invited to contemplate what has transpired is suddenly disrupted, exploding into the frame.
Hsiao-Hsien places his characters within a natural world not normally associated with his cinema. And his lens pays attention to nature in an almost Terrence Malick like way. After the first assassination, the film cuts to a shot of leaves in tree branches against the sky. Later, as a procession of dignitaries on horseback ride through a valley, they remain out of focus and instead the camera focuses on a small, bright, bush in the right hand foreground of the frame. But, like other aspects of the film – such as the mysterious gold-masked female assassin that is seen walking through a forest and, towards the end, engages in battle with Yinniang – they are there and then gone, like the silken curtains, like a torchlit procession at night, an assassin leaping unseen from rafters to kill and vanish. Likewise, the film offers no epic conclusion to the political conflicts in which this story is set. We are there to witness one character breaking the bonds imposed on her by masters, family and warlords. By film’s end, she travels on like the Ronin of Kurosawa’s epics, her own woman in an uncertain time.