The Assassin (Nie yin niang, 2015)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Hsiao-Hsien Hou

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By Roderick Heath

Hsiao-Hsien Hou is one of the greatest living filmmakers, and also one of the most rarefied. A visual poet of the highest order, Taiwan-based Hou has nonetheless avoided most of the tendencies of other rapturously cinematic filmmakers, preferring to make quiet, intimately textured dramas that often barely count as narratives. Hou could be broadly described as a minimalist, but this doesn’t quite encompass the lushness of his visions or his quiet, yet rigorous, experimentalist bent, his ability to take cinema apart and reassemble it with the bare minimum of gestures. With Flowers of Shanghai (1998), Hou tried to tell a story with a very few, almost entirely static shots, and yet was able to enliven them to a degree that makes the experience riveting. His Three Times (2005) told the story of modern Taiwanese history entirely through the fragmentary experiences of a triptych of lookalike lovers from three different epochs. Hou approaches film like a classical Chinese poet, inferring elusive ideas in his meditation on surface beauties and flitting lightly over his chosen theme, in a manner where seeming superficialities instead take on holistic meaning. The Assassin seems on the face of it a jarring change of direction for Hou, a digression into that perennial genre, wu xia, the historical martial arts action tale.

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The great masters of that form, like King Hu and Tsui Hark, long struggled to introduce flourishes of artistry and personality into a style driven by an urge towards kinetic movement and familiar archetypes. But Hou follows Ang Lee, Wong Kar-Wai, Kaige Chen, and Yimou Zhang, the most acclaimed Chinese-language art film makers of the time, into this realm. Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), and Zhang’s Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004) were balletic, richly crafted films that nonetheless stuck very close to the essentials of wu xia, and indeed tried to create exemplars of the form. Wong, with Ashes of Time (1995) and The Grandmaster (2013), played more deeply with the form and structure, as well as story patterns, though he still revelled in the spectacle of motion and conflict that forms the essence of the genre. Hou goes further in subordinating this style to his own preoccupations, to a degree that The Assassin barely has a likeness in modern film. The closest comparison I can come up with is with Sergei Paradjanov’s folkloric cinema works Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) and The Legend of Suram Castle (1984)—films that sustain a certain brand of narrative but prize evocation of past times and modes of life, an explication not merely of a bygone time, but also a total immersion in an alien way of looking, feeling, and experiencing.

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The Assassin is an elusive and taciturn work that doesn’t entirely dispense with the expectations of its chosen mode of storytelling, but does push the viewer to adopt a different sense of them. Hou prizes mystery, with a purpose: he evokes a world where treachery and violence are so endemic that almost anyone could be guilty of something, but where the responses to such a condition must inevitably be complicated. The core theme of The Assassin isn’t political so much as personal and moral, but there’s also a definite sense of parochial political inference to the film as well: although set in mainland China sometime in the 8th century, the situation of the state of Weibo, where the tale unfolds, resembles that of modern Taiwan.

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Usually, the presence of an action hero in a tale signifies the need for action, but Hou’s film is predicated on the ironic inversion of this supposition. His heroine, Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), has been trained since childhood to be a perfect killer—a lithe, silent, dynamically light-footed physical specimen who can deliver a death blow as lightly as the brush of a butterfly’s wings. Her gift is illustrated in the first sequence when she stands with her mentor and master, princess-turned-Buddhist nun Jiaxin (Fang-yi Sheu), watching a procession of state officials through a blissful copse in the countryside. Jiaxin instructs Yinniang to kill one of the officials, a corrupt and murderous man. Yinniang easily dispatches the man in the wide, open daylight and escapes barely noticed. The tensions set up here, between the shimmering, evanescent beauty of the woodland, with its promises of natural bounty, and the hatched seed of murder and depravity that is the dark side of human society, defines the rest of the film. Jiaxin has schooled Yinniang as the perfect engine of justice, a swift and detached instrument she can use when she targets someone she feels deserves a comeuppance in a world where the people who most deserve such ends are often the most shielded. But Yinniang shortly reveals a streak of independence and sentiment antipathetic to Jiaxin’s purpose, when she lurks in the rafters of a palace, watching another targeted official playing with his grandchildren and cradling a newborn. Yinniang drops into the room before the official but immediately starts to leave: when the official throws a blade after her, she spins and contemptuously knocks away the weapon, making it clear that she’s chosen not to kill him whilst leaving him aware how close he came.

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Jiaxin isn’t happy with a mere gesture and threat, however, and she curtly informs her protégé that she’s going to be returned to her native province of Weibo to kill Tian Ji’an (Chen Chang), her own cousin and the governor of the province, as an ultimate test of her grit. This mission is intended as a punishment, a severance, and a consummation for reasons that slowly resolve from the murk of complex, worldly tussles both vital and trivial. Yinniang is returned to the fold of her family. Her uncle is Tian’s provost Nie Feng (Ni Dahong), but Yinniang’s youth was even more tightly entwined with the current regime at the Weibo court and its overlord. She was raised to be Tian’s wife, but then the arrangement was broken in favour of Tian’s union with the current Lady Tian (Yun Zhou), a woman from the powerful Yuan clan. Yinniang’s exile began after she tried breaking into the Yuan mansion, making it clear that she was going to be a nuisance. Her parents hurriedly agreed to the proposal of Jiaxin, who is the twin sister of Tian’s mother Princess Jiacheng, to take her away and look after her. Her relatives and their friends at court are perturbed at Yinniang’s return as a cool, black-clad, silently boding presence. Yinniang’s taciturn manner buckles when her mother (Mei Yong) presents her with a jade ringlet, one of a matching set, and explains the regrets that have permeated their lives since the Yuan marriage took place and Yinniang left. A pattern of broken and warped relationships has beset them since the Emperor’s sister, Jiacheng, Tian’s mother and Jiaxin’s twin sister, married the old Governor of Weibo. Yinniang weeps silently over the ornament, symbolic of breaks between past and present, families, and loyalties.

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This moment is, in spite of its early arrival in the unfolding of The Assassin, a crucial pivot in the film. Emotional epiphany is far more important than the to-and-fro of court conspiracy in which the characters wind themselves until their lives resemble less a spider’s web than a fouled-up cat’s cradle. Although Yinniang’s arrival spreads ripples of awareness and tension through the Weibo court, nobody connects her at first with the black-clad swordswoman who keeps appearing mysteriously in the gardens and fights with the guards. She appears before Tian and his mistress in the palace chambers, seemingly caught eavesdropping but actually affording Tian the knowledge, as she did for the official she spared, that she’s watching and waiting for some ineluctable purpose. Tian chases after her but holds off when he realises who she is and she makes clear she’s not after a fight. He remains silent about the incident, perhaps because she’s the least of the problems in his court. Tian himself has already set in motion a crisis when he reacted with bratty anger to the counsel of one of his ministers, Chiang Nu (Shao-Huai Chang), warning him against getting involved with the plots of other governing families in nearby provinces and agitation against the imperial court. Chiang finds himself exiled at the insistence of Tian and his fellow ministers, whereupon Chiang briefly feigns paralysis from a stroke to escape possibly heavier wrath. Wheels within wheels are turning. Former ministers have a terrible habit of being captured by assassins on the road and buried alive. Both Lady Tian and a sorcerous eminence gris connected to her have agents reporting the possibility that one of Tian’s mistresses, court dancer Huji (Hsieh Hsin-Ying), is pregnant.

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Hou’s source material was a collection of swordfighter and supernatural stories by Pei Xing dating back to the Tang Dynasty, a famously prosperous and culturally fecund period in classical Chinese history that also threw up much of its folk legends (Tsui Hark has recently mined the mythos of Judge Dee, a real figure of the time transmuted into folk hero, for two recent movies). Xing’s story was brief; a skeletal frame begging for a more developed narrative. Hou remixes elements and changes the plot greatly, but also stays true to its essential presentation of Yinniang as a woman forcibly imbued with great, deadly talents taking it upon herself to shepherd the best rather than exterminate the worst. Usually, when such stories are approached by filmmakers, they’re transferred to the screen as straightforward tales of action and adventure—just look at the many adaptations of ancient Greek myths. But any scholar of mythology knows that such stories encode deeply held ideals and peculiarities, maps of the psychology and social structure of the worlds from which they emerged: many are as much maps and poems as they are narratives. Hou sets out to capture the evocative side of such tales.

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The Assassin’s extraordinary visual and aural textures create a mood that moves both in concert with, but also in intriguing detachment from this tangle of motives and actors. Silk curtains ruffling in the breeze and the licks of mist rising off a lake are observed with a sense of beauteous longing, a luxuriousness Hou refuses to give to the political drama. In some ways, Hou’s approach mimics Jiaxin’s programme of assassination: the context is smokescreen, the action all, in a world that’s rotten to the core, where everyone has become some kind of operative of the corruption. In other ways, Hou purposefully contradicts that programme, lingering on the intense, near-hallucinogenic beauty of this past world, the intricacy of the way it’s bound in with nature, in opposition to the modern world.

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Upon her return, Yinniang is re-inducted into the feminine space of the court, wrapped in the lustrous hues of a highborn woman in a place that seems almost pellucid in its placidity and contemplative quiet. Here Princess Jiacheng plucks an instrument, and it seems like a breath of tension never touches them. But, of course, Hou, who evoked the brutal and deeply competitive side of brothels in Flowers of Shanghai and Three Times, understands the bind of power, soft and hard, in such a hermetic world. Hou writes thematic jokes into the visual pattern of his film: the shift from brilliant monochrome to the rich and iridescent colour that comes after Yinniang is sent to Weibo reflects the jarring movement from Jixian’s rigid worldview to Yinniang’s own, more complex viewpoint. The ugliness of much human activity is contrasted with the beauty of the world and our own arts, but, of course, beauty and decay are never distinct. Yinniang is in abstract a familiar figure, the killer with a conscience, and her relationship with Jixian evokes the title of another of Hou’s best-known films, The Puppet Master (1993); it would be very easy, one senses, for Yinniang to continue through life as an empty vessel operating at Jixian’s behest, as being a tool is far easier than being a moral arbiter and being defined, like a distaff Heathcliff, by exile, rejection, and forced repudiation of her love. But when confronted by human frailty, Yinniang judges, not from sentimental weakness, but because she comprehends that all actions, good and bad, take place in the real world, not some platonic state of ideals. The stringent sense of purpose and expression of identity often can be observed in people performing mundane things or simply living life, and The Assassin, in spite of the deathly portent of its title, is built around such actions—a man cradling a baby; serving women preparing a bath; kids kicking around balls; Tian practicing combat with his son and dancing with Huji and the other court dancers, suggesting a frustrated artist and performer; Lady Tian being assembled like a machine with the regalia of her position by her handmaidens. Hou thus finally aligns his visuals with his heroine’s, noting the way life teems and possesses tiny glories even in the midst of foul truths.

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Themes of political corruption and the toxic qualities of monolithic power are ones many recent Chinese-language filmmakers have tackled in recent years, often in historical contexts, including Zhang with Curse of the Golden Flower (2006) and Xiagong Feng with his Hamlet-inspired The Banquet (2006). It’s a completely understandable preoccupation, given the nation’s long, uneasy relationship with the political forces that have governed it and the anxieties of contemporary filmmakers in a time of tremendous social and political rearrangement. But Hou’s attitude to it is distinct, worrying less about who’s committing what crimes and plots and why, in favour of noting the impact of loss and violence on individuals. Yinniang’s life is one of severed roles, like the jade amulets that symbolise her and Tian’s betrothal, which also originally symbolised Jiacheng’s separation from her home. Tian himself is first glimpsed reacting like a tyrant, but he’s soon shot like a sneak-thief in his own palace, stealing into Huji’s chamber to grasp a moment of succour and to explain the weird languor in his heart: he’s a total prisoner of his inherited life, a life he ironically gained despite being an illegitimate son of the last governor, just like the child in Huji’s belly whose potential threat stokes ruthless reprisal by enemies in court. Life in the Weibo court is a cage, where someone will always be plotting to kill someone else or snatch the reins of power. Yinniang listens in to Huji and Tian while hovering amidst the dangling drapes and veils that willow in the lazy drafts of evening like a spectral emanation, the agent of death and justice reduced to a remembered ghost in her own life.

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At one point in the story, Tian approaches his wife and speaks to her of how Chiang must reach his place of exile unharmed, unlike the horrible fate that befell the last minister to pass the same way. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Lady Tian is earpiece and interlocutor, as well as active agent, of the Yuan family and rival political factions. Shortly after, riders are sent out after Chiang and his escort, Feng. Hou doesn’t elucidate whether Tian is asking his wife to use her contacts to save Chiang or make sure he meets a grim fate: the levers of an enigmatic machine of power are being pulled. Chiang’s party is waylaid on the road, his bodyguards die bravely, Feng is wounded and taken captive, and the killers start burying Chiang alive. A mirror polisher (Satoshi Tsumabuki), who overhears the battle nearby, ventures out of the woods to try to help them, distracting the killers long enough for Yinniang, who’s been shadowing the exile and her uncle, to arrive and carve a swathe through the assassins. Yinniang takes her father and the two men on to a small village, where they’re able to recover from their wounds. This sequence is the closest thing to a traditional action scene in The Assassin, where Hou finds incidental humour in the polisher’s dash-and-dart efforts to escape the hornets he stirs up by intervening, contrasted with Yinniang’s poise, and a gasp of melodramatic force as Yinniang saves the plucky artisan. But of course, it’s not the causes for the action here that are vital, but rather Yinniang’s reaction to it, her action on behalf of her uncle and Chiang a statement of her own moral compass.

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Hou’s use of doppelgangers and characters whose roles merge emphasises a feeling of duplicitous and untrustworthy surfaces and identities. But it also echoes deeper, as if we could also be watching a Buddhist narrative of combating the elements in one’s self, whilst also recalling the splintered selves of Three Times and their three different modes of living: The twin princesses whose different interpretations of duty diverge in complete passivity and coldly detached, punitive action. Yinniang and Lady Tian and Huji, all prospective or actual mates of Tian. Tian himself and Chiang, two men with near-identical names, the truth-teller and the man afraid of the truth, but able to shuffle it off into a dead zone. Yinniang’s fleeting appearances in her assassin garb that stir up Tian’s guards also brings out another mysterious female figure, this one with features obscured by a gold mask and swathed in flamboyant colours: this figure stalks Yinniang after she saves Chiang and challenges her to a duel in the woods near the village. The masked woman gives Yinniang a gashed shoulder, but Yinniang is able to break her opponent’s mask, and the strange woman has to retreat before it falls from her face. The two women continue on their separate ways with an almost comic sense of diminuendo, but Hou notes the fractured disguise lying amidst the dead leaves.

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At first glimpse, this is all rather cryptic, but closer observation reveals that it makes perfect sense: the masked assassin is actually Lady Tian herself, the woman who stepped into Yinniang’s place as Tian’s wife and who is also her equal-opposite as a martial artist, defending her turf from adherence to a credo of vested, familial interest, an interest she also obeys when turning her sorcerer ally on Huji. In another sense, the masked woman is again an aspect of herself that Yinniang has to fend off, the side that would work for venal causes, the side of herself lost in the world. Qi’s performance is one of intense and baleful near-silence in equal contrast with last year’s Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, where she was vibrantly comedic. She never lets Yinniang turn into a stoic or enigmatic blank, but instead seems to hang about the film even when not on screen like an old cape, the intelligence of her eyes a constant source of emotional tenor. The only time she speaks comes after she’s wounded by the masked assassin, as Chiang sews up the gash. She murmurs her new understanding of a seemingly obscure parable about a caged bird told to her earlier by being delivered a painful object lesson in the limitations of her strength and the price to be paid for meddling in systems too strong for an individual to combat, a truth that eludes Jixian’s program of assassination. Entrapment is one of Hou’s constant motifs, but so is liberation. In Three Times, he identified, more brilliantly than most any other artist of contemporary times, the peculiar anxiety that comes with ultimate freedom. The Assassin is more of a statement of overt hope, as Yinniang staves off all her shadow-selves and worldly parameters, as she realises her carefully imbued powers belong to her and give her something no one else in this time and place has, save for a humble merchant like the mirror polisher—the right to decide her own fate and morality.

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Lim Giong’s score, with its odd and eclectic instrumentations, gives the film a peculiar pulse, surging during fight scenes, but more often vibrating under the visuals in dull drum thuds, counting off the minutes until the next eruption of violence. But The Assassin is, above all, a visual experience, a film in love with elusive flavours of experience and littered with moments of extraordinary, tremendous exertions of filmic craft to capture moments that feel ethereal and featherlight: Yinniang’s vantage on Tian and Huji through curtains with guttering candle flames rendered by the focal range as hovering wisps of fire, a battle between Yinniang and Tian’s guards filmed from a distance amidst trees where only flashes of colour and movement can be seen, and the final meeting of Yinniang and Jiaxin on a hilltop where curtains of mist rise and swirl about them as if the shape of the world is dissolving. Nature is charged with such astonishing power here that it becomes another character, not a threat like the jungles of Herzog and Coppola or a stage like Lean’s desert, but a place of escape and revelation, where things that are hidden in the human world are exposed, but so, too, is a more elusive sense of life.

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Yinniang’s heroism at the end is to expose villainy and pay homage to the one real loyalty of her life; once she does this, she exposes herself to the vengeful disdain of Jixian. This proves ineffectual: Yinniang is no longer a tool. The climax of the film isn’t an action scene and doesn’t even include Yinniang, as Tian, aware that his wife has conspired against his lover and also probably played a part in the death of his father, confronts her in a steaming rage, and their son places himself in front of his mother as a human shield, suddenly rendering the furious overlord an impotent tantrum-thrower, utterly trapped by life and role. The last glimpse of Yinniang sees her leading her charges on to a new land, dissolving from sight like the fading dew of morning, entering myth as she leaves behind the ephemeral obsessions of the world that created her and nurtured her to the point where it could no longer contain her.

  • John spoke:
    15th/12/2015 to 1:03 am

    Hi Roderick! I’ve been a quiet reader of the blog for a little while, I’m always appreciative of the creative and informed way you dig into films! You clarified and enriched many of the vague thoughts I had after watching this beautiful, challenging movie.

    Any other recommendations from Hou’s filmography?

  • Roderick spoke:
    15th/12/2015 to 1:48 am

    Hi John, thanks for reading and commenting. I desperately need to see more of Hou’s work and I’m thinking of going on a completist tear through his work. But I have no hesitations in recommending both Three Times and Flowers of Shanghai. A City of Sadness is very highly regarded although I haven’t yet seen it.

  • Terry spoke:
    10th/01/2016 to 7:49 am

    Hi Roderick,

    you analyzed this movie with insightfulness, sensitivity and learnedness. Even as a native speaker of the language, I had a hard time deciphering the opacity and subtlety of this amazingly straightforward film. You did the best job out of all the reviews I have read online. One of the things I noticed from critics is that there was no emotional “payoff”. However I disagree, and feel that any more would have rendered Shu’s character and the film less than what it has achieved. You have grasped the essence and nuance of this story perfectly. Keep up the great work!

  • Roderick spoke:
    11th/01/2016 to 12:33 am

    Thanks Terry. II also powerfully disagree with the idea there was no payoff – I felt a sensation of real cheer and lift with that last shot of Yinniang and her entourage walking off into the mist, the feeling that she’s emerged with her humanity bolstered where the others were doomed to continue living in their moral sinkholes.

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