Set amid the distant reaches of China’s expansive past, wuxia films are first and foremost fantasy stories, replacing the mystical vagueness of storybook nowherelands with hazy historical allegories. Focused on communicating the transportive heroic purity of traditional values, their plots and settings are fundamentally set dressing, used to enhance the verisimilitude and overall beauty of the fable. This makes it a seemingly strange choice of genre for a meticulous director like Hou Hsiao-hsien, whose films are both remarkably modest in terms of emotion, and specifically attuned to the concrete details of very specific points in history. Yet just as he mined lavish, muted melodrama from 19th-century opulence in Flowers of Shanghai, or granted piercing tenderness to the near future in Millennium Mambo, the Taiwanese auteur sets down to familiarize Tang dynasty China in The Assassin. Less concerned with eulogizing values than exploring them, the film carves out a rich emotional sphere concomitant to its stunning production design, finding delicate poetry in the dispassionate pursuit of revenge.
The story illustrates the quiet ambivalence of Nie Yinniang (Qi Shu), who’s snatched from her family in childhood and molded into a lissome killing machine under the tutelage of a mysterious nun. Years into her training, Yinniang’s technique is flawless, but she’s not quite up to code in terms of callous indifference; after botching a hit thanks to a rush of sentimentality, she’s sent by her master to prove her mettle once and for all, by offing her cousin and onetime love interest, Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen). Partially responsible for a wave of unrest in the remote Weibo region, the young general has run afoul of the emperor, who’s struggling to reign in the subversive activities of his far-flung provinces. Still drawn to her would-be victim and the home from which she was abruptly taken, Yinniang struggles to complete her mission, skulking around in the shadows, privy to mounting court intrigue as her presence becomes known.
It’s easy to draw parallels here between subject and creator. Like his powerful protagonist, Hou is an itinerant master fresh off a foreign sojourn (2008’s French-produced Flight of the Red Balloon), now making something of a homecoming. He’s also gained new resources, in possession of an increased budget, his largest yet, buoyed by funding from mainland investors for the first time. The resultant increase in production values is visible, but for all intents and purposes this is still a Hou movie, aggressively slow and difficult to follow, its labyrinthine plot inviting viewers to disengage and soak in the visual splendor. The impenetrability of the story is best appreciated as another metaphor for deprivation in a film full of such signifiers, exemplifying a style of painterly withdrawal that informs the careful treatment of these marvelous Chinese landscapes. The director’s usual static frames and leisurely lateral camera movements at times give way to quick, slashing cuts—depictions of strokes of violence set off with tensile abruptness. But there’s no overall sacrifice in patience or elegance, making for a tale of action that punctuates its glacial pacing with sudden explosions of energy.
The narrative, meanwhile, is best appreciated on allegorical grounds, with the struggle between an outlying, semi-autonomous province and the iron will of “the court,” interpretable as metaphor for the current detached state of Hou’s native Taiwan, or an increasingly empowered Chinese populace, bristling under the constraints of its authoritarian government. Whatever the interpretation, the focus remains on estrangement, with a famously reserved director chronicling the steady spread of conflict from a pensive remove. The film’s most obvious equivalent may be Wong Kar-wai’s Ashes of Time, another non-traditional outsider take on the classic historical epic, with which it also shares a specific memorable image, of a private moment glimpsed by a onlooker, a curtain billowing in front of the frame. Both movies represent genre material twisted toward specific auterist aims, favoring textural detail and atmospheric potency over clarity or directness.
Absorbed by the conflict between desire and duty, The Assassin still sticks in some ways to the usual wuxia tropes, though the outcome here is pointed toward heroic inaction rather than any culminating feat of courage. Unlike most of this genre’s heroes, Yinniang isn’t on a personal quest. The killing she’s tasked with, her hesitation about which grants the film its content and textural substance, in fact runs counter to her personal wishes, granting her no incentive beyond the necessary approval of her master. What results, then, is a tale about the sacred difficulty of righteous disengagement, a sort of Buddhist parable of self-denial conveyed as a gorgeous, painstaking procession of sounds and sensations. The plot develops as the film progresses, but its significance fades, reduced to the impression of candlelit whispers scratching in the darkness, swords clanging under the chilly gaze of a looming mountain, heavy drums thudding in the distance.