Hou Hsiao-hsien is a Taiwanese director, not so much of movies, but of moving beauty. His films unravel as stately mysteries, half-remembered dreams which ravish the viewer’s mind.
I’ve loved some of his films such as City of Sadness and Millennium Mambo, yet have been frustrated, numbed, lobotomised, by others such as Three Times and his French-language picture The Flight of the Red Balloon.
I’d missed The Assassin***** at Cannes (I was interviewing Woody Allen at the time, so, you know, you can’t have everything), for which the Hou ended up winning Best Director. The film then went on to be named at the top of many critics 2015 polls, including being Sight &Sound’s end-of-year champ.
However, I’d heard dissent, too, that there’s a certain WTF quality to Hou’s first foray into the wuxia genre, that epic brand of period martial arts movie of which Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (by Taiwan’s Ang Lee) is probably the best-known example, although The House of Flying Daggers, by Zhang Yimou is my actually my favourite of the sort.
Even though I’d been sent The Assassin on an awards-season screener, I sought out a big screen showing of it in order to be fair as possible, happy to be either entranced or to join the chorus of anti-critical dissent.
Reader, I was transported. The Assassin is a headlong dive into beauty, a film that progresses with the balletic grace of a silent film but yet, to quote Caliban, is filled with noises, sounds and sweet airs: rustles, music, drum beats, wind, birdsong. It was utterly captivating.
The plot, based on a 9th century tale, is just enough on which to hang a narrative – a gorgeous, black-clad female assassin (Shu Qi) called Yinniang baulks at killing a man in the presence of his baby son so is punished by her stern mentor and given the task of assassinating a former lover, and cousin, Lord Tian (Chang Chen), who is now in charge of Weibo district. I say negligible, yet it’s also more than enough to confuse us, to make us feel lost, which I think is the point. For at these moments, you surrender to the wider currents of the film, to the visual flow.
For The Assassin works by layering meaning through a cumulation of images. It’s about the candles and their golden flicker, the embossed chiffon curtains, the capes and head dresses, the silk boots and blossoms and even kids playing a game of 9th century football.
There is story to be divined in crimson parasols and fuchsia belts. When the martial arts comes, it is almost background, the ninja battle glimpsed through a forest in long shot, flashes of sword glinting in the leaves, black shadows streaked suddenly blood red. All someone has to whisper is “Yinniang is back,” and the film leaps forward.
Drums beat insistently, menacingly while our assassin floats over rooftops, like a blackbird. The eye is drawn to enormous pomegranates on platters, or petals floating in a bath. It’s a harmony of composition, a balance of justice and revenge so that rightful heirs can be restored, so the colours and shades on the screen are crucial.
This painterly dream is conjured by the great cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin, who did In The Mood for Love for Wong Kar Wai and who has worked on some of my favourite Asian films of recent years, such as Tran Anh Hung’s Vertical Ray of the Sun and Norwegian Wood.
The opulence of the rooms and the robes opens up to include nature. There are fight scenes in silver birch forests and waterfalls and giant rock cliffs among which verdant valleys tumble. There’s a banquet which becomes a swirl of sleeves and skirts, a dance number to funky drums.
There’s humour too, amid the seriousness of the beauty and the tragedy of revenge. A monk reminded me of Dustin Hoffman’s Master ShiFu from Kung Fu Panda, with enormous white eyebrows and a beard to the floor.
And to the fore is Lim Giong’s extraordinary music which moves from traditional instruments to a percussive synth score, from strings to wind underpinned by drum beats of almost African rhythms.
One Malick-style cut is so beautiful and replete with meaning, as the shot moves from Yinniang with a sword rent in her white robe to a close up of albino goats, a textural and tonal shift that moves the story along. The image is the picture. I get it if you don’t get it. But this time, you’re wrong. It’s the opposite of Mad Max.
Majestic and mysterious, The Assassin is a martial arts masterpiece. Go with it.