It’s odd to think that the once derided chopsocky kung-fu genre has grown into a playground for art filmmakers. Like Ang Lee, Zhang Yimou and others before them, Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien (‘Millennium Mambo’) has moved from quietly ornate dramas into the world of swords, jump kicks and deadly ballet.
Hou’s latest film, ‘The Assassin’, offers the filmmaker a chance to channel his inner geek and pay homage to a favorite childhood genre. Of course, he does so through his personal brand of lingering beauty, delivering an action film with far more pregnant pauses than action. It’s a beautifully executed experiment, but far from an exciting one despite the chosen genre and title.
The plot is simple, but the telling complex. Shu Qi stars as Nie Yinniang, a young woman raised since childhood to be a remorseless assassin. In early scenes, she shows an unexpected moment of remorse by sparing her latest target after spotting his young child. When returning to her master, she’s punished with her next assignment. She has to kill a governor (Chang Chen) who’s her cousin and also a man whom she was once set to marry. From there, the director meticulously follows Yinniang on her mission, sitting in shadows and observing her potential prey, unsure if she’s willing to go through with the assignment. Tension is palpable. The action? Quite rare.
From the opening sequence shot in gorgeous black-and-white Academy Ratio which then expands into images adorned with blinding primary colors, Hou approaches with the film with an almost painterly temperament. He lingers on images and characters for quite some time, often giving equal screen time and focus to flickering candles or drifting flower petals as his characters. The world is certainly familiar to those who know the genre, filled with lavish costumes, ridiculous facial hair and impossible wire-fu physicality. Yet the pacing and telling are anything but. The filmmaker dwells longest on the moments between the action, playing with tension and vividly building his world. Whenever Yinniang finally does strike down opponents, the action is swift and immediate, with little blood and even less fighting. The logic is that her deadly character is so efficient that there are no battles, but the way that factors into the film’s rhythms is anything but conventional in genre terms.
‘The Assassin’ is a difficult rendition of a genre known for simple pleasures. Hou might be slumming in the setting, but in form and content the film is closer in line with his more serious-minded endeavors. What it all means is anyone’s guess. On a beat-by-beat plot level, it’s minimalist and even somewhat simplistic. However, the layers of enigmatic images suggest a variety of meanings, and the measured mysterious dialogue often complicates the straightforward tale.
This is certainly a film more for the art house crowd (hence the award-winning reception it received at Cannes) than action fans. It never quite finds that magical balance of crossover that high-minded historical kung-fu tales like ‘Crouching Tiger’ or ‘Hero’ did. It’s a tough movie to love, but an easy one to admire.
Love or loath the results, Hou Hsiao-Hsien has taken a popular filmic form and twisted it into a hypnotic tone poem. Some will be enthralled, others bored to tears. Either way, they’ll acknowledge that there’s never been a movie quite like it.