Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin is not quite like other wuxia movies. It shares a reverie in the natural world with King Hu’s A Touch of Zen and the turmoil between love and duty of Ang Lee’s genre-rejuvenating Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but it transcends both. Where Hu leant on religious allegory, Hou’s spirituality is deeply humanistic; where Lee used his canvas for epic fairytale legend, Hou employs his to craft folkloric vignettes of painterly beauty. Where the genre itself glides over rooftops and bounds into trees in glorious action spectacle, The Assassin uses violence in precise doses, instead submitting to the awesome power of stillness and tranquillity. Hou’s camera lingers on a silk curtain blowing in the breeze without needing a blade to shear it in two. While this might deter some audiences, those who persevere will find a sumptuous film of extraordinary grace and irresistible potency.
Much has been said and written about Hou’s decision to exorcise a great deal of the traditional narrative surrounding Yinniang – the director himself has spoken of his disregard for ‘plot’. Instead, he is enamoured with people and instead focuses on the emotional stakes of his scenario and the atmosphere they create for the characters. He envisions a way of storytelling that evokes deeper meaning through landscape, emotion, and environment. Concurrently, Yinniang spares the life of a man she is sent to kill when her heart is moved by his young son. This a weakness that her master, Jiacheng (Sheu Fang-yi), must rid her of, so sends her on a mission to harden her resolve – to kill her cousin, Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen), who she was once betrothed to. She is torn by her duty, will, and lingering attachment.
Shu is breathtaking in the role, commanding and powerful – she has the poise of an apex predator, but lacks the appetite. For almost the entire duration of the film, tears pool at the bottom of her eyes betraying her internal upheaval. Often framed in mid-to-long shots by Mark Lee Ping Bing’s ravishing camerawork she seems to float through her surrounding like smoke in catching in the sunlight, sometimes to the portent of a rhythmic drum beat, sometimes to the distant sounds of running water and the songs of crickets. Where Lee shot arguably the most exquisite romance of all time with In the Mood for Love, he’s possibly replicated the feat for martial arts movies here – but gorgeous visuals are not enough alone, and in cast their spell in perfect concert with Hou’s atypical impressionistic poetry. The Assassin not only stops the heart but gives it palpitations all in the same stunning moment.