'The Assassin' is confounding even for an art house martial arts film
Legendary filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien returns after eight years with his strangest film yet: a minimalist wuxia ass-kicker that's alternately hypnotic and visceral.
Director: Hou Hsiao-hsien
Stars: Shu Qi, Chang Chen
4 (out of 5) Globes
Hou Hsiao-hsien’s art house wuxia “The Assassin” has two speeds: blink-and-miss and not moving much at all. It lulls us then shocks us with sudden and brief violence, then lulls us right back again. Technically it delivers the goods: it follows a trained killer, played by Hou regular Shu Qi, on a mission to take out a feared governor (Chang Chen), and many others besides. But when Qi’s Nie Yinniang delivers the blows, the tussles are over as quickly as they started. Most of the time Yinniang lies in wait, or not even that. The show-stopper isn’t some smackdown; it’s a five-minute shot filmed through a black veil. There’s some courtly business going on on the other side, but our attention is stolen by the way candlelight reflects on the fabric and the way the camera, wielded as usual by Mark Lee Ping Bin, moves slowly and purposefully around a tiny space.
That’s par for course in “The Assassin,” which is very much a film by Hou Hsiao-hsien, the Taiwanese minimalist who prefers shots that often stare at action from a distance, suggesting stories more than telling them. Perhaps his greatest work, 1994’s “The Puppetmaster,” is a memory piece so stripped down that if we learn anything it’s from osmosis. Most of the time we’re staring at group gatherings, watching bodies in minimal motion, as though we were a painter working on his or her canvas. 1998’s “Flowers of Shanghai” prowls around 19th century rooms lit only by oil lamps. “The Assassin” spends some time outdoors, but much of it is in the home of Cheng’s Tian Ji’an as he kills time before his inevitable killing. He sits around. He holds court. At one point there’s a detailed presentation of a Tang dynasty bath.
This sounds like Hou is peering behind the curtains, showing the business martial arts films elide. And yet “The Assassin,” at least in retrospect, has a lot of plot — plot that makes it sound like a typical wuxia ass-kicker. There’s a disarming push-pull between a high-toned art film that bewitches adventurous viewers with its long, quiet stretches of not much at all and a story that gets the job done. We might even be tempted to write it off, to say that Hou hasn’t exactly sold out but has delivered more plot than at least six of his usual films. We might even think we shouldn’t engage with it as much as we would with previous Hous, even as we’d never recommend it to someone expecting a Shaw Brothers romp for fear of getting smacked around after.
But we should engage, even if a first viewing suggests it’s Hou’s strangest film yet — busier than usual but also thinner. I’ve only seen the film once, so I can’t say more than the superficial: that the long stretches of hypnotic filmmaking are indeed hypnotic; that the glacial-then-speedy-then-glacial-again pace is pleasingly jarring; that there’s definite feminist subtext about women dominating over a long history of patriarchy. That last bit seems on-the-nose for Hou, who prefers transcendence and observation — stray bits of meticulously staged life glimpsed in seemingly disassociated chunks. (His last film, “The Flight of the Red Balloon,” made in France with Juliette Binoche, is among the gentlest and most serene films ever made.) There are more mysteries to be teased out of “The Assassin,” but it’s definitely a strange beast that mixes the high and the low, right down to a jaunty song over the oddly traditional final shot. But jerking you around is part of the fun.