Hou Hsiao-Hsien made a wuxia film. That career choice makes logical sense in a vacuum: Hou is positively obsessed with history, and history, more so than fantasy, is wuxia’s bread and butter. But there’s little in Hou’s body of work aside from his preoccupation with the past to suggest an interest in swordplay. He’s made period dramas about Taiwan’s economic flux during the Cold War, the country’s fifty year endurance of Japanese rule, and the atrocities committed by the Kuomintang government after control of the island retroceded to China in 1945; he’s told stories about young people coming of age in these eras, stories of fiscal collapse, familial destruction, and the sobering verities of adulthood.
So picturing him orchestrating leaping wirework battles against lush backdrops in ancient China is, put bluntly, kind of baffling. But that’s precisely the pleasure of Hou’s wuxia opus, The Assassin, which has already earned him accolades and levels of praise due only to masters of their craft: The film is both precisely and not at all what audiences expect from Hou as a filmmaker, though his audience admittedly remains limited to clued-in cineastes. Maybe The Assassin, Taiwan’s AMPAS submission for Best Foreign Language Film, will change that. Most likely he’ll remain an obscure maestro, which, frankly, is fine. Just be sure to shed a sympathetic tear for all the poor bastards out there who will never get around to seeing any of his movies.
That goes doubly for The Assassin, which is, in a word, stunning. Describing the film any other way does it injustice, yet that single-word qualifier serves what Hou has achieved here only marginally. The Assassin adapts a Tang Dynasty legend about Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), a general’s daughter who is kidnapped by a nun (renowned dancer Sheu Fang-Yi) and molded into a preternaturally lethal killer in her youth; Hou captures the last stages of the girl’s training through black-and-white photography so pristine and crisp you’ll want him to stick with it for the rest of the film. He doesn’t, though, and eight minutes in and two assassination attempts later, The Assassin swaps to a resplendent visual palette so vividly realized, from the details in its performers’ costumes to the leaves on the trees, that you’ll wish you could travel back in time to dope slap yourself for hoping for a monochrome presentation.
In those opening moments, Yinniang carries out one assignment and refuses another; she offs her first target, a corrupt official cantoring along on horseback, with a single fluid stroke of her blade. She’s so graceful that the deadly efficiency of the act is secondary to her unwavering poise. Subsequently, she seeks out another man at his house, where he plays contentedly with his child. The sight of familial bliss gives Yinniang pause. When she flees and reports to the nun, she is sent on one final task, to head to the Weibo region of Northern China and murder its lord, Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen, reuniting with Hou and Shu Qi after their collaboration on 2005’s Three Times), who also happens to be her cousin. The Assassin takes full shape and develops its central drama from the casual cruelty of that order: Tian Ji’an and Yinniang were once betrothed to one another, but he married another to reinforce a political alliance.
Anyone who has seen the odd Hero, or House of Flying Daggers, or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and hasn’t been turned on to Hou’s work may walk into The Assassin with warped expectations. Those expectations will be dashed. Hou is nothing if not a realist: Even when operating in a genre known for artfully sensational fight sequences, he sticks as close to truth as he possibly can. His film is resultantly made more sumptuous and more magnetic by virtue of what is unsaid and unseen. So, be warned that The Assassin is not a martial arts picture. Instead, it’s a character study of one woman choosing to write her own identity when her agency has been robbed from her. Shu Qi is the movie’s silent core, a gliding shadow of doom struggling with the selfhood imposed upon her by her mistress. (Interestingly, though Yinniang proves ruthlessly effective at taking life, it’s actually the nun, wrapped from head to toe in white robes, who stands in as the film’s avatar of death.) It’s her film, though she spends swaths of it lurking at the edges of the frame, patiently observing people like a bird of prey as they politic and scheme in the pursuit of running a province. Heavy weighs the crown.
But Hou loves wuxia as much as the next guy, and when you’re working in that mode you might as well indulge yourself. The Assassin uses action sparingly, but oh, how flawlessly that sparing action is used. Like Yinniang, Hou wastes no movement in each of the film’s handful of action scenes; every swing, every thrust, every elegant dodge and parry has an exquisite purpose, and they’re captured with as much eye-popping fluidity as brutal clarity. This isn’t a bloody movie, but we feel the blood spilling even though we never see it. The Assassin romanticizes its duels without sanitizing its flurried violence, grounding every fight in assertive reality.
It’s more exhilarating in practice than it sounds on paper: Hou is so dedicated to the act of the build-up that we’re caught up in the moment before the moment even occurs. In particular, one woodland scuffle, fought alongside a dirt road between a handful of traitors and Weibo ministers, showcases Hou’s knowledge of action geography with startling efficacy. The delight is in the anticipation of imminent sparring, and The Assassin is all about anticipation. Long takes and longer pauses pepper the film, drawing out beats to contemplative effect. This is a deliberate film, one that’s defined by contemplation rather than by conflict and where serenity is both soul and substance alongside discontent; ultimately, these qualities mark The Assassin as classically Hou. The film eschews the overtly fantastical for good reason: Hou’s refined, intentional style provides all the necessary enchantment to leave us enraptured.