For those expecting for the new heir to Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Zhang Yimou’s Hero in Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin, look elsewhere. This isn’t the crowd-pleasing, epic-making brand of Chinese martial arts movie made to win awards and please everyone. Sure, Hou was crowned Best Director at Cannes earlier this year, but a triumph in the world’s most artistically refined film festival should be a signifier that The Assassin was made for Art, not for Commerce. Hence, all semblance of spectacular fight sequences and narrative thrills have been muted down in Hou’s take on the wuxia genre, giving us a delicately slow, exquisitely controlled and photographed mood piece that would make an aesthete’s heart melt in wonder. Cinema as a visual art is Hou’s primary concern here, that whether he’s staging a balletic swordfight from afar or billowing a curtain in his richly textured interior shots or merely capturing the rhythm of nature and the way swirling mist seem to dance across the mountains and marshes, 9th century Imperial China rarely looked as gorgeous as this on screen.[divider]+[/divider]
All semblance of spectacular fight sequences and narrative thrills have been muted down in Hou’s take on the wuxia genre, giving us a delicately slow, exquisitely controlled and photographed mood piece that would make an aesthete’s heart melt in wonder.[divider]+[/divider]
Narratively, this is as slow-burning as watching flames licking embers. While this palpably isn’t for the attention-deficit audience, Hou demonstrates a patient and rewarding kind of storytelling that does not cheaply employ any flashback device when characters tell their long tales of fury and regret. When Lord Tian J’ian (Chang Chen, handsome and commanding) confesses his association with Shu Qi’s Nie Yinniang, the raven-haired, black-clad markswoman who’s sent to execute the Weibo region’s political usurpers, Hou refuses to take his camera any closer than a medium shot, allowing his story to sink in directly from the mouths of his tellers, giving such scenes such intimacy and even empathy.
What’s more, The Assassin neither turns Yinniang’s character into an avenging angel figure nor a feminist icon. In other martial arts films, this assassin would have become a blood-lusty, man-slaying female warrior played by Zhang Ziyi. But Shu Qi, in an enigmatic, emotionally contained performance, sublimates the essence of a scorned woman, taught with the fine art of merciless killing and ridden with an inner conflict between morality and duty – who ultimately learns that organised murder isn’t a solution, but rather a creation of the cyclical patterns of revenge and carnage. It’s this sense of pacifist wisdom that shores up The Assassin above the films of its ilk, along with its unparalleled visual beauty.