The stories we are drawn to begin early — for Hou Hsiao-Hsien, he says The Assassin began in adolescence, in the reading of chuang qi, stories that can’t be paralleled with the tags of “fables” or “fairy tales,” even though they do involve fantastic plots. As historian Mark Edward Lewis writes in a volume on the Tang Dynasty, a particularly rich period for art, literature, and the era “Nie Yinniang,” The Assassin’s source, was written in, “Tang authors highlighted the literary nature of their stories by including other literary modes: poems, letters, historiographical techniques, and quotations from received works.” In other words, art layers, includes, writes over, and perhaps, in its transitions, to an unaware reader, confuses, even as it also entertains.
The Tang Dynasty might be familiar to audiences of other martial arts works (Tsui Hark’s Detective Dee, Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers), but here’s where they and this differ: The Assassin is not the product of looking at other genre masterworks, but a film made through the processes that have grounded all of Hou’s work — films united in their refracted approach to history, desire, and politics. So here there is action, and beauty, and a sense of choreographed movement, and shadows flitting through the night, nature threading itself through human concerns, long-running families, ceremonies, and manipulations, and so on, but none of it conforms to a satisfying narrative structure, break-neck pacing, or combat as pure spectacle. This is sure to frustrate some: at a VIFF screening, helped along by a dismissive introduction (“I know it’ll be hard, but don’t check your phones”), the sense of impatience was palpable. The idea that an assassin’s action scenes will be ones of waiting, listening, and delay is nice in theory, but in practice, like most of Hou’s choices, can seem to miss the spirit and ecstasy of wuxia classics. To change anything about a genre so embedded in fixed ideas is to risk disappointment, and, despite the sense of danger and shock The Assassin’s brief action scenes carry, overall, this is not a movie that sweeps away its audience — as in Hou’s other films, he is after something different, something that challenges memory, rather than fits snugly into it.
On some counts, The Assassin is not easily understood: dialogue is spoken, deliberately, in guwen, or classical Chinese, and for most of the film, the dominant piece of music is the monotonous thrum of a distant signal. In an interview with Aliza Ma for Film Comment, Hou adds context and clarifies. On the first count: “Language was more basic back then … The actors had to practice how to draw out the emotional nuances in their performances with their bodies and faces, because they couldn’t rely on the dialogue.” And on the second: “According to Tang custom, 3,000 drumbeats would sound from the imperial quarters. Every li [the unit in which distance was measured at the time], there is another drum that starts to beat, until everyone knew it was time to get up. This signified the beginning of a day. When it got dark, the drums would beat 500 times. This meant curfew time, when people had to stay confined to within one li of their living quarters. You can learn all this by reading the wuxia novels carefully. Beneath all the mystical or fantastic elements, you will find traces of daily minutiae, which help you understand the limits that defined life back then — how each day was bookended.” This is not surprising for Hou: limitations and normalcy guide narrative, rather than exceptional incidents that rise conveniently to a climax.
As many have pointed out, The Assassin is a film that will grow, develop into a finer focus the second time around. One can imagine this is a film thought over, re-watched, and re-considered from Hou’s perspective over the years as well: perhaps as a much more conventional narrative when he began his career as a film director, making romantic comedies in the 80s, then deepening in its commitment to period detail as he examined Taiwanese historical amnesia, then, rather than embodying a genre completely, selectively feeding parts of it, during his latest period of trying on different styles outside of his home country. The Assassin, in a way, might form a loose trilogy of adaptations with Café Lumière and Flight of the Red Balloon, each formative inspirations wrested from their symbolic, branded image and turned into an appreciative, interwoven expression of love.
Seen in this way, other connections appear: since the Tang dynasty lacks the mirrors and glass Hou, working with cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bing, frequently blurs and disguises images through, instead there’s curtains, veils, drapery. And just as those two other works are interspersed with sequences of conspicuous choreography that break through the otherwise realism-dictated worlds they are set in (and end with songs), The Assassin is paced similarly, a movie where violent clashes punctuate the slow banality of regal life. The stealthy appearances of Shu Qi, as the main character, might lack the fluourishes of a heroic character of the genre, but placed next to Juliette Binoche’s entrances in Flight of the Red Balloon, they both convey an affection for naturalist gesture, whether a wave of a hand or an impatient pace.
In the seven years since Flight of the Red Balloon, Hou has filled the position of president for both the Taipei Film Festival and the Golden Horse Awards in China — despite his status as someone out of step with popular entertainment, Hou clearly is aware of what is happening in global cinema, and draws on this awareness when he decides not to replicate its tendencies. Not everything is perfect here: the integration of nature shots (trees, mist, water) works against an already abstracted narrative, and Hou making another film en hommage, another film that fits his pace, one that exists outside of modern time, cities, work, could be seen as a step back — the innovation of his historical trilogy still looks modern in a way The Assassin, at least on first encounter, does not. But there is still, in its unfamiliarity, the sense that, whether re-watched or just re-played in memory, this is something no one else is doing, or is likely to repeat any time soon.