I’m just gonna say it right here. I’m not well versed in either wuxia films or the filmography of Hou Hsiao-Hsien. Not that either set of films don’t interest me, but I’ve never really put in the time or effort. After The Assassin, I might understand why. I am all for pretentious movies (Upstream Color and Under the Skin are a couple of my favourite movies of the past couple years), but The Assassin focuses on a thin plot and even thinner characters in the hopes that you’ll be interested enough in the beauty of the filmmaking. And I was almost fooled too.
Hou’s first film in seven years follows Nie Yinniang, the titular assassin. As far as I was able to recall, she was given away at a young age by a royal family to a nun. From there, she was raised by them and taught in the way of martial arts where she learns to use these skills in a less than moral way. I say that I have a hard time recalling the film and that’s because of how slim the movie is. At 105 minutes, the movie tells its slim story with as little exposition as possible and hope that I understand what’s happening.
There is a central mystery in that Hou really doesn’t care whether you understand or not. Sure, the film is staggeringly gorgeous in its stunning academy ratio picture, but what purpose does it serve. The first ten minutes of The Assassin are also in black and white, but it doesn’t go out of its way to highlight anything in the movie. I wasn’t just confused, but confounded at how little he cared about whether his audience understood and without a description as to what the movie was about afterwards, I wouldn’t be able to even tell you the basic story.
Every bit of acting seems understated and interesting, so much so that it makes me more interested to learn about these characters and what makes them tick. Qi Shu in particular is amazing as Nie. She is so stoic and cold, it’s a mystery how she was able to convey so much emotion within that. Hou doesn’t want us to understand anything other than what made her the way she was and not caring about anything else.
Sure, I may sound like I’m nitpicking and didn’t enjoy it, but it’s almost infuriating how little information this movie is willing to give you. It cares more about giving the setting in the 9th century during the Tang Dynasty, rather than give you some information about its characters and what the era has to do that would make me consider its significance with the rest of the story. There is no light in the dark tunnel that is The Assassin.
I will say that the choreography and staging of the action was really well done and each moment of intimacy between characters is felt in those moments. There are subtle things that are revealed about characters and their relationships throughout the action that add so much the little bits of information. Unfortunately, that’s not enough.
Hou is an acclaimed filmmaker that has blindsided me with his latest feature. You can tell this is a film that is made with love and understanding, but he seems to have made it for himself and the people that understand the types of films he makes and loves. While I won’t be coming back to another one his films for a long time, I’m still happy I was able to take in the gorgeous visuals and small insights into the lives of these people. But I felt at arms length and that left me cold.