Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s arthouse wuxia film, The Assassin, is an astonishing work of visual beauty with a whole lot of thorny story happening beneath its artfully-composed surface. I’ve seen it twice, and the story made somewhat more sense the second time around, although there’s still a lot I don’t understand. But even the first time the teasing sense of a story just out of reach was enough to carry me along while I admired the profoundly beautiful imagery on display. This doesn’t work for everyone, however, and this is a movie that a lot of people find boring because “nothing happens” — and indeed happens very slowly. But for me it works a bit like a puzzle, with the story being offered in fragments and oblique associations that require the viewer to fit it all together.
The basic set-up is political. In the 9th century the Chinese kingdom is falling apart. The imperial court militarizes some of the provinces to try to hold things together, but then the newly empowered provinces start to threaten the empire themselves. The most powerful of these provinces is Weibo, where the story is set. What we gradually learn over the course of the movie is that the emperor sent one of his sisters to Weibo to marry the governor in an attempt to forge a political bond. Much of the submerged story circles around the attempts to maintain that bond and the family and personal relationships of the imperial court and the governing family of Weibo.
Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), the assassin of the title, was raised in Weibo but taken by another sister of the emperor at an early age and trained in martial arts. Thus Yinniang is an agent of the imperial court, and she’s sent back to Weibo to kill the current governor, Lord Tian. I still don’t fully understand Yinniang’s relationships to all the characters. Her mother and uncle were apparently part of the ruling family of Weibo, because they were the ones who ceremonially welcomed the imperial Princess Jiaxing when she was brought to the province years before. Yinniang’s father, Nie Feng, is referred to as Provost in the subtitles, but elsewhere I’ve seen him described as a provincial general, which seems to fit what we see him do in the film. Her uncle is a counselor to the governor, Lord Tian (Chang Chen), and he gets himself into trouble by counseling that Weibo refrain from fomenting trouble between two other provinces, which he fears will bring imperial troops into Weibo.
Lord Tian is referred to as Yinniang’s cousin, but it’s not clear to me what kind of cousins they are. He calls Princess Jiaxing his mother, but he also explains that his real mother was a concubine. If the concubine is identified, I haven’t picked up on that, so I don’t know if she was related to Yinniang. What we’re told by Lord Tian is that Princess Jiaxing betrothed him and Yinniang when they were still children as another attempt to forge a bond between province and imperial court, but because Tian was not really Jiaxing’s son, she later broke the betrothal to have him marry somebody else to strengthen his claim to the Weibo governorship. This is one of the story cruxes that only started to open up on the second viewing, as I came to understand that Lady Tian had hired the white-haired sorceror to kill Tian’s preganant concubine and as I also came to suspect that Lady Tian was the masked swordswoman that Yinniang fights and unmasks, although the audience never sees the unmasked face. (Hou confirms that the masked swordsman is Lady Tian in an interview for Film Comment.)
I’m spending so much time on the story and backstory because it’s the hardest thing to understand, plus I’m enticed by the puzzle of it. The Assassin is very much a wuxia film in the convolutions of the story of faction against faction in pursuit of power, even if the story is so deeply buried it’s hard to make out. Hou makes it deliberately difficult to figure out who the characters are just by not giving us information about them, but then he also does things like reveal that the woman who tells the story of the bluebird that has such metaphorical resonance throughout the film wasn’t, in fact, the Princess-Nun who trained Yinniang in martial arts but the Princess Jiaxing, who was the Princess-Nun’s twin sister. This revelation is also how we can understand that Yinniang is an agent of the imperial court, which isn’t otherwise stated. That’s the kind of oblique association I referred to earlier. Another is the revelation of the concubine Huji’s pregnancy, which is told to us in three different situations with three different implications. If you connect it to the fact that Lord Tian was the child of a concubine, it creates a little story in itself that may explain why Lady Tian is trying to kill Huji. It’s as if the story is happening in the gaps between facts that aren’t explicitly connected.
While I certainly was able to connect a few more of the narrative dots the second time through, I’m doubtful that all the dots can be connected just based on watching the movie itself. For example, there’s the mysterious character whom we first see filling a bamboo bottle with water from a stream during the forest attack on Yinniang’s uncle. This man, who has no weapon to speak of, intervenes in the attack and nearly gets himself killed before Yinniang arrives to save the day. He takes the uncle’s party, including Yinniang’s injured father, back to his village, and there we see him showing off a mirror for three children. Later he bandages Yinniang’s wound after her duel with Lady Tian (although it’s always hard to be certain of the chronology and sequence of events), and at the very end of the movie Yinniang returns to his village again and we hear that she had promised to do so and that she’ll help another man make a trip to a destination we haven’t heard of until then. Who are these people? The original 9th Century story that the movie’s based on (which may be also where I learned that Yinniang’s father was a general) includes a character called the mirror polisher who is mentioned only in passing as the man she marries. It’s thus tempting to read the interactions between them in the movie as signs of love and a coming together, but if it’s in the film at all it’s in such subtle moments as the intimacy of mirror polisher dressing the wound on her naked shoulder.
I haven’t said much about the aesthetic pleasures of The Assassin, although there’s plenty of that in other reviews. Hou is famous for using long takes, and here he uses them to create landscapes that look like classical paintings, with careful gradations of color and contrast. The sense of natural beauty is enhanced by the use of ambient noise in the soundtrack. The costumes and sets are also beautifully designed, and the use of architecture in the compositions is just as striking as the natural landscapes. Interiors have a feeling of being shot by candlelight or lamplight. One long sequence that many people comment on is shot through diaphanous curtains of gauzy fabric through which we can make out the ghostly faces of characters looking without directly seeing, and it reminded me of something out of Josef von Sternberg, which is high praise from me. There are moments that seem almost miraculous or mystical as when four birds erupt out of a dark tree beside a wintery pool, or the shot of the Nun-Princess standing on a lonely tor while mist rises up behind her to hide the landscape and isolate her against a blanket of white. Even the first time I watched the film, when I couldn’t follow much of the story at all, I found it mesmerizing to watch and to listen to.
I’m generally not a fan of anti-narrative art. I’m a genre-lover who likes traditional stories with conflicts and development and resolution. But I don’t mind being made to work at understanding the story, if the effort ends up seeming worth it. Maybe as a genre-lover I was prone to be sympathetic to this wuxia story, even though it doesn’t offer the standard thrills of a wuxia story. It plays with the genre tropes (the magic of the white-bearded sorcerer may only be a form of psychological manipulation), but it also just adds odd details that makes you wonder without answer (why is the white-bearded sorcerer a Caucasian?) There’s a suggestion of endless, unfathomable depth to the world created on the flat screen. The buried story feels like buried treasure.