After a long and troubled production history, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin (2015) has arrived in Cannes and it has to be one of the most beautifully shot films of the competition so far. Like the Barry Lyndon of martial arts movies, every shot has been composed, lit and executed with such care and attention by Hou and his cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bing that The Assassin is totally absorbing in its spectacle, from the meticulous details of the interiors to the astonishing, breathtaking locations, from forests and waterfalls, to mountainsides and in one unforgettable moment cliff tops. The story is a dense affair that even with a pre-title explanation will leave many scratching their heads.
Yinniang (Shu Qi) is taken from her family and placed in the care of a nun Jiaxin (Sheu Fang-yi) for her own protection. The nun has trained her in combat and we see her prowess in an early 4:3 black and white sequence – incongruously reminiscent of Casino Royale’s opening – and her effortless deadliness is matched only by her grace and beauty. “I want you to kill him like killing a bird in flight,” the nun advises. The business of the story begun the screen reverts to 1.85:1 ratio and a luxuriant and complex colourfulness. When Yinniang falters in a mission and fails to kill her target because he was with his young son, the nun is displeased. “You should have killed the one he loved most, and then killed him,” she advises.
To cure her softness, and as part of some wider plan, Yinniang is sent to the Weibo province where she is to assassinate the military governor there, Lord Tian Ji’an (Chang Che), who is also her cousin and, we later learn, her first love. Tian is fully aware that the Chinese court is trying to destabilise the region and his concubines, his wife (Zhou Yun) and his advisers proffer contradictory advice and possibly represent threats themselves. It soon becomes apparent that Yinniang cannot go through with her mission. She lurks in the shadows and observes, a silent player waiting for her moment to strike, and to decide, first of all, which side to strike for. Counsel meetings are held and much of the history revealed in stories, rumours and memories, as Tian tries to make sense of the threat posed. Hou shoots these scenes with a slowly shifting camera, the figures becoming visible and obscured by the drifting veils of the curtains and the flickering of the candle light, a beauty that might prove perilous judging by what hides in the darkness: a threat realised in one particularly stunning scene as the shadows and smoke come alive with murderous intent. When violence erupts, it’s sudden, brilliantly executed and swiftly over with. There are no long set pieces here: no fifteen minute fight scenes.
Violence is not a gratuitous spectacle but presented the way Yinniang herself uses it: without a wasted movement, or breath: in the straightest possible line. So efficient is her combat, she fights mainly with a short dagger, that she doesn’t even necessarily need to defeat her opponents in order to defeat her opponents. In several fights the besting of the adversary happens well in advance of the defeat – like chess grandmasters who know they’ve won six moves in and don’t need to carry it through to check mate. It’s this firm non-showy mastery that Hou shares with his protagonist. The deliberate framing of the shots offers composition after composition to linger over and enjoy: a waterfall crashes through a green forest, a meeting on the precipitous cliff-tops is obscured by mist as if on cue, a song is sung in a garden, a small bowl of grapes like a detail from a Flemish still life to the side. The Assassin is not the crowd-pleasing action adventure of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) or Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002) – it’s often indifferent to the needs and wishes of the audience but, as with his assassin, Hou’s art lies in patience, taking the time to strike his target.