As I watched the beautiful cinematic creation that is Hou Hsiao-hsien’s historical drama “The Assassin” – that opens Friday at Belcourt Theatre – I felt pleasant echoes of another exquisite film; scenes that looked like they’d been painted instead of photographed, characters’ inner lives set aside to explore larger themes and so much suggested or stated rather than shown. While there are clear differences that would take too long to explain here, I felt the same admiration and wonder for Hou’s film that I’ve come to feel for another auteur delight, Stanley Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon.”
It’s no surprise that the Taiwanese director’s first feature-length film in eight years won him the Best Director prize at Cannes this year (it’s also this year’s official Taiwan Oscar® entry for Best Foreign Language Film); “The Assassin” is a very well-crafted movie that bears his mesmerizing meditative mark just as surely as his 1997 look at a contemporary Taiwan fueled with underworld and political elite interactions in “Goodbye South, Goodbye” and 2001’s “Millennium Mambo” (the first time he employed Shu Qi, the captivating actor who plays the title character in this film) did. In conjunction with longtime collaborator Mark Lee Ping Bing as cinematographer “The Assassin” paints striking portraits in every shot.
The story is set in ninth century China, towards the end of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), and based on a short story (a “chuanqi” more specifically, a form of short fiction which originated in that period) called “Nie Yinniang.” In a black-and-white prologue we learn that Yinniang (the aforementioned Qi Shu) has been trained by the nun-princess Jiaxin (Sheu Fang-yi) to kill without question or emotion, which she demonstrates quite quickly and efficiently on a government official riding at the head of his men: “Cut him down for me, expertly. As if he were a bird in flight,” Jiaxin says before Yinniang uses her rather singular short dagger to efficiently complete the task.
Later she fails to kill a regional governor because his young son is present, though, and Jiaxin decides her young charge must decide which path she’ll take by ordering her to kill her cousin Tian Ji’an (Chen Chang, who is best known for his lead role in Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”), leader of the politically unstable Weibo province who was betrothed to marry her until his mother broke that promise.
This tale may fall in the wuxia (which literally means “martial hero”) genre, which many critics have noted is the Chinese equivalent of American Westerns, but it’s not like Lee’s movie or the more recent “The Grandmaster” from Wong Kar-wai; combat in “The Assassin” is in the appropriate style but very brief, and it’s made abundantly clear that the lead character derives no personal gratification from her efforts. If you want gore, you’ll be disappointed, but thankfully Hou is aiming for something higher even when he gives us elements of action and the supernatural common to the genre – a thoughtful treatise on such concepts as loyalty, patience and compassion.
The film’s exteriors were shot in Inner Mongolia, in parts of northeastern China and in the Hubei Province (located in the easternmost portion of central China); shimmering silver birch forests and picturesque lakes, as well as some harsher landscapes, that evoke mood as well as placing human characters in proper context. Interior shots of sumptuous royal apartments and gorgeous costumes (credit set and costume designer Hwarng Wern-Ying for a job very well done) linger in the mind after watching the film just as they lingered in the frame – we often see Yinniang lurking, listening and looking on as Tian Ji’an ponders the past and present.
There are very few close-ups in the movie, and that’s of course no accident in principal photography or the editing bay: “I’ve always preferred to film in long shots,” Hou says when asked in a recent interview why he prefers to create distance between characters and audiences. “I like extended sequence-shots which show what’s going on behind the characters, the objects that are around them, even the landscapes. Extended sequence-shots let the film go further, always further. One shot, encapsulating everything that’s going on. I don’t like editing that ‘theatricalises’ the action…that physically breaks up movements.”
As with much of Hou’s previous work there are sub-plots that are easy to get lost in if you’re tempted to go down the rabbit-holes of this film; the seen and unseen repercussions that rise from Tian’s dismissal of his advisor Xia Jing (Juan Ching-tian) from the court because of his far-too-plain speaking could be a film in itself, but it’s best to resist the temptation to focus on that strand too long. The detached beauty and literary flow of “The Assassin” paradoxically commands us to remain thoroughly and patiently engaged in Hou’s masterful work, and like “Barry Lyndon” it will take multiple viewings to mine the all the rich cinematic ore that’s laid before our eyes.
“The Assassin” opens Friday in Nashville exclusively at the Belcourt Theatre (2102 Belcourt Ave.); click here for showtimes and to buy tickets. Following the 7:15 p.m. showing on Monday, Nov. 23 there will be a discussion with Peter Lorge, assistant professor of history and Asian studies at Vanderbilt University. Unrated, in Mandarin with English subtitles, 104 min.
*Photos courtesy Well Go USA.