My first encounter with the Taiwanese-Hong Kong actress, Shu Qi, was in the late 1990s. My brother, a huge Jackie Chan fan, introduced me to the romantic comedy, Gorgeous. The film was dubbed in English as I recall, but the movie, and the performances by Qi and Chan, were infectiously fun. Shu Qi would also feature with Jason Statham in The Transporter years later – for those of you a little less cultured, I mean, looking for a more commercial example.
When Qi’s first of three grand collaborations with Hou Hsiao-hsien came by in 2001, it was quite a refreshing acting experience I witnessed. Millennium Mambo is a lucid, youthful drama, raw and brittle, with Qi utterly immersive in the central role. Then in 2005, Qi would return to Hou’s realm, in the remarkable Three Times. Co-starring with Chang Chen, Qi would shine once again in a diverse trio of love stories set in very different eras.
Fast forward to 2015. Shu Qi and Hou Hsiao-hsien join forces again, with The Assassin. A film the director had envisaged and tormented over and financed, over a grueling seven-year period. When his ambition to bring wuxia, a martial heroes fiction genre, to the big screen, the finished product is a mesmerizing package.
Acclaim aplenty at the Cannes Film Festival in 2015, with the Taiwanese filmmaker nabbing the Best Director prize. The Assassin was also the Taiwan entry to compete for the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 88th Academy Awards. There were definite rumbles and grumbles across cyberspace when the film failed to make the final five nominations.
The Assassin is based in some part on the martial arts tale by Pei Xing, and set during the time of the Tang Dynasty. That said, Hou has his eager fingerprints all over this visual feast. But his hands are incredibly steady, given the enthusiasm he built for himself, and the expectations of the genre.
Shu Qi is the titular assassin, Nie Yinniang, some time in the 9th century. Donned in suave, sleek, long black garments, Yinniang is tasked with slaying the corrupt government bigwigs, by her mentor and guardian Jiaxin. A former nun, Jiaxan has brought Yinniang up from being 10 years-old – the history of which will rear its ugly head.
Qi is stoic, resilient, every inch a menacing and empathetic presence. The Assassin opens in a kind of prologue, in gorgeous, crisp black and white. Yinniag demonstrates her exception ability and training, by seemingly appearing from nowhere to slice the throat of an assailant. It’s an amorous moment, almost blink and you’ll miss it.
As we drift into the vibrant, illuminous color, Yinniang exudes unfathamable stealth once again, though this time her potential prey is holding a child. And her display of mercy not only forces Jiaxin to assign her a far more trickier kill, but also shines a light on the heart and morality of someone who has the capacity for quick-fire, ruthless kills.
Yinniang is therefore sent far away, to a province of northern China, named Weibo. And once there, she must eliminate Tian Ji’an, a military governor, but also her distant cousin, with whom she was once arranged to marry. In Hou’s world of brutal professions, the training is not just of the sword, or indeed the mind, but also the ability to close off the heart and take life with cold blood.
The Assassin is by no means a mindless stream of fight sequences and action set-pieces. Relating to high-class examples of the genre, like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or The House of Flying Daggers, is both flattering and misleading. The swift bouts of action here, are grounded, sporadically implanted, and thrifty in execution. Hou is a tease here, exquisitely brought to life, the minimalist fight sequences are exhilaratingly fleeting. They come and go in a flash, there is no floating across treetops, or endless clings of blade-play.
The rest might be declared sluggish or drawn-out, and in these instances The Assassin may have its detractors. The fact is, the subtle movements, gestures, plot developments, act as a stunning, beautiful painting you can stare at for hours. Your mind’s eye allowing the tones and textures to drift and swirl ever-so-slightly across the canvas.
Truth is, The Assassin‘s pace is unforgettably immaculate. The slow-burn developments or explorations of story and character, are often very deep and moving. Dripping with lushful color, and fascinating choreography, the film is a methodical, meditating journey through a corner of Chinese history, as well as the human endeavor. There’s even a dazzling, but by no means out of place, supernatural moment. And a hefty knowledge of this portion of history is not necessarily required, I might add.
Cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bing is a thing of legend here. Motion within the frames, and meticulous lateral camera arcs, serve to intricately carry you through the story-world. The costume design and production design are elaborate, quite wonderful, with the attention to detail unquestionable. Add to that a feverish, under-laying score by Lim Giong, with measured, fluent notes and a distant beating of folk drums.
Director Hou Hsiao-hsien has crafted an enduring tapestry of technical artistry. The Assassin is graceful and so full of poise, everything is in the right place. The more energetic scenes begin and end off in the distance at times, and there are hardly any close-ups or frenetic camera movements. Hou is a grandmaster at visual poetry, his previous efforts demonstrate his flourish no matter the era. With The Assassin, he is completely committed to the old world, and it is one we feel we know ourselves as a result.
The film overwhelms, but it is a gradual journey of fruition and appreciation. At times, the awe and wonder you feel creeps up on you, in similar swoosh to Yinniang’s own finesse in targeting an enemy. Hou’s pacing whistles rather than bellows, and it is this very feat that makes his filmmaking so alluring and successful.
At the center of the masterful affair, is the illustrious Shu Qi. Likely her most sedate acting turn, but possibly her finest. With little dialogue, Qi brings the burden of regrets and decision-making, of a woman pulled between, essentially, her job as a killer, and her code as a human being. All the while, flowing into action when needed, with incredible skill and deadly prowess.
Through decisive, emotive facial expressions and body language, Qi gives Yinniang a truth sense of depth. A scene where she hides her face, as she weeps into her hands because of a very sad story being told, is as touching as The Assassin gets – and needs to be. A woman dealing with estrangement, personal conflict, courage, the brilliant Qi is impressively pensive and luminous throughout.
The Assassin is a melodic, elegant motion picture. Creeps up on you, and perhaps takes a second or third viewing to fully hit you. Kind of like the presence of Qi’s Yinniang, among the shadows and the swaying curtains. At times, The Assassin is an illusion of splendor, a film deeply emotional and invigorating, a fable of one assassin able to end you in a split-second. But with the good humanity to give your life a second thought. If you’re lucky.