English Title: The Assassin
Original Title: Nie yin niang 刺客聂隐娘
Country: Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, France
Director: Hou Hsiao-Hsien 侯孝贤
Hou Hsiao-hsien 侯孝贤
Ah Cheng 阿城
Chu T’ienwen 朱天文
Hsieh Hai-meng 谢海盟
loosely based on a short story of Pei Xing 裴铏
Music: Lim Giong 林强
Cinematography: Lee Ping-bin 李屏宾
Shu Qi 舒淇
Chang Chen 张震
Zhou Yun 周韵
Nikki Hsieh 谢欣颖
Ethan Juan 阮经天
Yong Mei 咏梅
Sheu Fangyi 许芳宜
Ni Dahong 倪大红
Lei Zhengyu 雷震语
Chang Shaohuai 张少怀
Taiwanese auteur Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s long-in-gestation passion project, THE ASSASSIN, arrives eight years later since his previous feature film FLIGHT OF THE RED BALLOON (2007), re-teams him with his muse Shu Qi, as the titular protagonist Nie Yinniang, a killer in China’s Tang Dynasty (circa 8th century), who returns home for the first time after being sent to train with a Taoist nun (Sheu) since she was a child, and her merciless mission is to assassinate Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen, reunites with Shu Qi in Hou’s oeuvre after THREE TIMES 2005, a decade ago), the military governor of Weibo, a northern autonomist region of China where is under threaten of being annexed by the central government, whom she was once betrothed to.
The film would be a big challenge for any neophytes of Hou’s artistic styles, the lacunae-ridden narrative is maddeningly opaque, on the one hand, with all the characters communicate in archaic Chinese to maximally reflect its milieu, even for Chinese audience, subtitles are indispensable; on the other hand, Hou becomes ever more determined to pare down unnecessary dialogues, words are (mostly) redundant and all sources of information are not being spoon-fed to audience, instead, we viewers must be massively patient to complete the puzzle with our own perspective and discretion, that’s why in Hou’s cinema, his shots are always staying longer than average.
Hou starts this lush period drama with a monochrome prologue, where Yinniang is under test for two missions, the first one is a walk in the park, which manifests her second-to-none prowess, while the second one from which she opts for walking away indicates that the years-long training fails to remould her into an emotionless killing machine, it also echoes the finale, in spite of being unscrupulously jilted, severely hurt, taken away from her family for all these years, hatred has not engulfed her mind completely, she is still cognisant of what is the right thing to do. At the end of the day, the main villain is still at large, the danger to her family is far from petering out, however, she is able to be impassive about it, and feels no qualms of abjuring her cause, and embarks on a normal life with the mirror polisher (Tsumabuki), who is the only one on the same wavelength of hers.
Hou’s interpretation of the story, a Wuxia world with sublime subtlety, where emotions, motivations and conspiracies are hereditarily buried beneath the appearance, invites viewers to mull over various schools of oriental philosophy, it is far more recondite than Ang Lee’s CROUCHING DRAGON, HIDDEN TIGER (2000). “Jiang Hu” is not simply about fame, kung fu, power, status, romance or vanity, it is a protracted practice to liberate oneself from one’s inner demon, to Yinniang, it is her decision to revenge, the indoctrinated belief: taking one life to save thousands; to Ji’an, it is his ambition, to rebel against the central; to Lady Tian (Zhou Yun, it is really difficult for a first-viewer to find out that she is actually the woman with the golden mask), what she wants is the power to reign Weibo with her own blood-line. Not all of them can let go of their demons.
The film has transported its viewers into a succession of awe-inspiring Chinese classical paintings (one particularly stunning long take involves the morning fog slowly encompassing the mountain where Yinniang and the nun master are in the right half of the frame), which are poetic, bucolic, and quaintly antique. Downplaying the martial art antics and theatrics, with a brush of black magic in play, Hou’s THE ASSASSIN is truly in a class by itself, an inspiring winner of BEST DIRECTOR in Cannes, one of this year’s best in my book!