“The Assassin” is exactly what you would expect from a Hou Hsaio-hsien wuxia film, if you ever expected a Hou Hsiao-hsien wuxia film at all – it’s not much fun. Which isn’t to say it doesn’t have other merits. For one thing, it is one of the most beautiful-looking films you’ll see. However, that Hou, one of the most serious formalist filmmakers around would even tackle this genre seems bizarre until you realize that other Chinese indie or art film auteurs have set precedent here like Wong Kar-Wai with “Ashes of Time,” Ang Lee with “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” and Zhang Yimou with “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers.” Even Hou’s Taiwanese compatriot Edward Yang was collaborating with Jackie Chan on a project before his untimely death. Will Tsai Ming-liang be next?
The story follows master assassin Yinniang (Shu Qi), taken from her aristocratic family as a child and trained by a nun named Jiaxin (dancer Sheu Fang-Yi) in 9th century China. Jiaxin sends Yinniang to kill corrupt lords, but Yinniang disappoints when she spares one such governor because his young son is present. Jiaxin next dispatches her perhaps too sentimental ward to kill the powerful governor of Weibo, Tian Ji-an (Chen Chang), who also happens to be Yinniang’s cousin. Yinniang repeatedly shows Tian that she can kill him at any time but she keeps sparing him. At the same time, revelations about Yinniang and Tian Ji-an’s shared history dating back to childhood come to light, and the main tension becomes whether she will ultimately decide to kill him.
The story is further convoluted by a backstory of a princess who broke her arranged marriage that was to create peace between Weibo and the Imperial Court, intrigue involving Tian’s consort (Zhou Yun) and his beautiful concubine (Nikki Hsin-Ying Hsieh), a banished advisor (Juan Ching-tian) running for his life, and a good and simple character known simply as the Mirror Polisher (Satoshi Tsumabuki) whose life Yinniang saves.
Hou’s style is stilted, encompassing long takes that establish mood over storytelling. At the beginning of his career, the autobiographical elements in his subject matter, particularly in his masterpieces “A Summer at Grandpa’s,” “A Time to Live and a Time to Die,” and “Dust in the Wind,” brought astute lived-in details and a powerful passion beneath the cool surface, but since 1995’s “Good Men, Good Women,” he’s become a pure aesthete, seeming to believe longueurs are good for you. “Goodbye, South, Goodbye,” like “The Assassin,” just looks jaw-droppingly beautiful, and would be great as a series of photographs in an art installation, but is hard to sit through as a movie.
Whereas Wong’s “Ashes” was immersed in tragic romance and Zhang’s “Hero” subsumed with melancholic sacrifice, Hou’s “Assassin” is mostly lacking except in the formal beauty for which his films are known. Wuxia stories like “Journey to the West,” “Water Margin,” and “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” fill the youthful imagination of most Chinese boys, and Hou is no exception, but his sensibilities don’t match the genre. It’s like Michelangelo Antonioni making a Spider-Man movie. Wuxia may have peaked with Ching Siu-tung’s “Swordsman II,” an insanely hyperkinetic riot starring Jet Li and Brigitte Lin that indulged in the joy and crazy rushes possible in the genre. “The Assassin” is the antithesis of that.
Hou nearly elides his action scenes. When Yinniang battles a dozen men, Hou shoots in extreme long shot with most of the distant action hidden by trees and the shadows of the forest. It has its own beauty but subverts wuxia conventions. Hou’s fight scenes are more akin to those from the 1970s “Lone Wolf and Cub” series in which another master assassin, Ogami Itto (Tomisaburo Wakayama) wasted no movement and killed most of his opponents in one flashing stroke. Like Ogami Itto, Yinniang’s martial skills far surpasses almost everyone she encounters, but Hou finds no spectacle in her prowess and exactly what happens to those she fights is left vague and undetermined. He purposefully removes the thrill from the action, taking away the relish from the violence. Wuxia films are essentially fantasies with impossible swordplay and while Hou keeps the impossible swordplay, albeit minimizing its screen time, he aborts the fantasy.
The film still has its beauty however. Hou goes with his ever reliable cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bing with the usual amazing results. An early shot has a lush orange-red interior contrasted with the blue-green of nature on the other side of a large doorway. Another depicts a golden field in the foreground and immense misty mountains in the background. Yet another shows spiraling fog over placid water. One particularly impressive shot has a character standing on a mountainside above the clouds until one floats by and engulfs the peak. The viewer can determine whether all these glowing vistas make a wuxia film that doesn’t really want to be a wuxia film worthwhile.