Before mentioning anything else about The Assassin, the first full film in seven years from Chinese director Hsiao-Hsien Hou, I have to admit that I was completely baffled throughout most of the film. Having very, very little familiarity with the wuxia genre, the opaque plot flew, for the most part, over my head. Yet, somewhat bizarrely, this barely impacted on my enjoyment of the piece, which is so stunningly beautiful that it can never be boring, instead delivering its audience into a state of serenity, occasionally violently broken by a wonderfully staged fight sequence. As a purely visual experience, there is very little out there that can match it, and this praise is only vaguely tempered by the difficulties I had with the story.
What little I could gather was mainly backstory, delivered through a series of stories told and speeches given by the various members of the different Chinese courts. Most of the characters speak mainly in monologues, with people talking at, rather than to, each other. Set in 9th Century China, the country’s finest assassin, Nie Yinniang (Qi Shu), refuses to carry out a kill order on a target when she sees him playing with his young son. For this indiscretion, her nun-princess master Jiacheng (Fang-Yi Sheu) orders Yinniang to kill her cousin, Tian Ji’an (Chen Chang), the lord of Weibo, a province that refuses to bow to China’s imperial court.
The mystery surrounding much of the film may prove frustrating for some, but I felt it was entirely in keeping with the mood that the visuals and low, soothing, score so successfully create. We’re not here for a twisty tale of political intrigue and murders as much as we are to bask in the imperturbable glory of China’s natural landscapes and the clipped, formal artistry of the regal chambers. For the first 15 minutes or so, it may be tempting to try and grasp at deeper meanings and a more conventional plot, and whilst they may well be there, you’ll get far more out of The Assassin if you adjust yourself to its own unique pace.
Once you do, you can let Mark Lee Ping-Bing’s gorgeous cinematography and the superb music wash over you and lower your heart rate. Come the ending, I found myself desperate to stay in the cinema, not wishing to re-enter the world and have the atmosphere broken by the bustle of Leicester Square. From a misty lake at dawn to a deep cave lit only by a couple of torches, there is the feel that we’re watching a master painter at work in every scene, and it’s a privilege to enter his world.
Tranquility also makes the film’s fight scenes, rarer here than in the other wuxia films I’ve seen, particularly potent. A sudden clash of knives following an extended period of near-silence provides a startling reminder that there are deadly machinations going on behind the scenes, and the full fight that follows this up is flawlessly choreographed. The Assassin is an entirely bloodless film, though that is not to say there are no deaths, and many of the individual duals end with nothing more than a cracked facemask or a frayed robe. Yinniang never faces any existential threats but, again, this is not a film with tension as a central goal. Instead, be content to be enthralled by one of the most aesthetically pleasing films you could possibly see, and you’re in for a truly beguiling cinematic experience.