In a competition otherwise marked by compromise and caution, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s austere, astounding The Assassin feels like it’s been beamed in from another era entirely, even as its heavily saturated, aggressively digital images carry an undeniably modern gleam. Formally entrancing, narratively confusing, and frequently sublime, Hou’s take on the wuxia martial-arts genre is bracingly singular, a captivating lesson from a true master on all the things that can be controlled within the frame.
Although the film opens with a lengthy intertitle explaining the various interregional rivalries in ninth-century China, summing up the exact allegiances and character constellations contained within the plot that follows is no easy task. Since the age of 10, general’s daughter Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi) has been in the care of a nun (Sheu Fang-Yi) entrusted with teaching her the ways of the assassin. In a ravishing black-and-white prologue sequence cropped on each side, we see the fruit of her mentor’s labors: After Yinniang downs one victim riding by on horseback, she then moves on to the house of her next prey, yet is unable to go through with the killing, strangely moved by the family scene she discovers there. Disgusted by her lack of steel, the mentor releases her charge, returning her to a family she no longer has any connection to. Picking the most beautiful moment in this succinct, perfectly edited flow of images is impossible: a corpse on the ground, the trees rustling behind him; the assassin flattening her body against the ground before her unseen mistress; a child grasping at a flying insect, he and the camera in that moment oblivious to anything else.
Upon Yinniang’s return to her family’s estate, the frame expands, color asserts itself, and confusion ensues, as a steady stream of different characters, interiors, and backstories are introduced; one’s inability to properly distinguish between it all is a result of visual similarity and apparent ellipses. Luckily, however, in the face of such stunning images as he proffers here, this narrative confusion soon takes a back seat to engagement of a more intuitive nature. Watching each individual shot is like observing a rich canvas of furnishings, people, and costumes being painted on in time by means of candles, smoke, and movement, with constant, often microscopic changes occurring as curtains blow in the wind, minute shifts in light occur, and the camera pans around. The sense of visual awe is heightened yet further by the immaculate sound design, with many of these interior scenes unfolding in near silence, the calm only broken by a precisely placed bird cry or the rustling of robes.
Without the miasma of regional and familial loyalties becoming any clearer, the action increasingly shifts outside, the perfectly composed interiors giving way to equally stunning landscape vistas, with mist, wind, and shades of daylight becoming the new compositional tools, complemented by subtle filtering and saturation effects that create a scenery not quite of this world. Outside, too, is where the majority of fight scenes take place, with Hou careful to ration these exquisitely orchestrated flurries of muted clangs and thuds so that each sparing interlude leaves you hungry for more. If anything, deliberate withholding is perhaps the best description of The Assassin’s strategy as a whole, with each utterance of a poem, each rare close-up, or each fleeting incidence of direct emotion shining through all the brighter by being applied so sparingly.
In terms of The Assassin’s narrative convolutions, you might ask ultimately why things need to be so opaque. Yet the withholding of much of the necessary information to grasp what’s happening and who’s who actually has a paradoxically liberating effect. Freed from the usual need for each element of the plot to “make sense,” the viewer can simply sit back and bask in all the compositional grandeur and allow the different pieces of meaning on offer to cohere freely, an exhilaratingly radical counterpoint to standard narrative signposting. And if a looser, more open-ended sense of progression does indeed emerge, it carries with it a blissful, almost abstract generality: What does it mean to leave one space and enter another? When does one strike and when does one not? Where does one role stop and another begin?
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 13—24.