The Assassin (刺客聶隱娘)
Martial Arts | 105 Minutes | 2015 | Taiwan/China
* * * * *
In 9th century China, the weakened Tang Dynasty struggles to retain control over its militarised province of Weibo. Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi) has been trained by the nun Jiaxin (Fang-Yi Sheu) to assassinate corrupt government officials, but though she possesses all of the art, she cannot bring herself to kill a man as he sits cradling his sleeping son. So Jiaxin, who has raised Yinniang from the age of ten, sets her charge a more personal task: Yinniang is to return to her home of Weibo, and after first slaying everyone he loves, must kill the military governor Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen), who is also her cousin and was once her betrothed.
The prologue to Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin is shot in high-contrast black and white, while the body of the film abounds in sumptuous colour, the accentuated greens, blues, creams, reds, and oranges of the Weibo court interspersed with silvery morning mists and forest birches. But against Hou and Mark Lee Ping Bin’s meticulous cinematography, which lingers over scenes of courtly intimacy and makes pillows out of a complaisant nature, moving always with a steady grace, the narrative of The Assassin flickers with dim lights, and we have to peer carefully if we are to discern the details.
We understand that Yinniang was sent away from Weibo when a more politically advantageous marriage was presented to Tian’s mother, who also happens to be the twin sister of Jiaxin – but the tenor of the relationship between these two matriarchal princesses remains unspecified, and other connections flow as currents in a plot which we struggle to grasp or locate. Tian has made his mistress pregnant, but cursed by black magic she miscarries. Have the princesses been pulling the strings, whether desiring to serve justice to the corrupt, or to preserve an increasingly tenuous balance of power?
These hazy lines are perfectly attuned to the atmosphere of this intoxicating film, which seduces by means of its slow pace, visual splendour, and period detail. The fight scenes, relatively sparse across the film’s hour and forty-five minutes, are exquisitely choreographed, and play out as inevitable acts: sinuous extensions of the body, expressions of learning and skill that might shift the course of history, but which nevertheless merely trim at the edges of what is psychologically profound.
The Assassin is loosely adapted from the 9th century short story ‘Nie Yinniang’ by Pei Xing, an early instance of the wuxia genre which depicts the adventures of martial artists in ancient China, and especially rare for portraying a female protagonist. Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s first feature since the French-Taiwanese Flight of the Red Balloon in 2007, it saw the veteran Taiwanese New Wave director collaborating for the first time inside China, with filming taking place across the Hubei province, Inner Mongolia, and the country’s north-east. Hou won Best Director at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival for The Assassin, while the Cannes Soundtrack Award went to Lim Giong for his score, emerging through pulsing drums and delicate zither.