Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Assassin

Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s films are not known for their quick pace or frenetic movement. Someone unfamiliar with his work might look at a film like Flowers of Shanghai or Three Times, with their drawn-out scenes of dour people talking past each other while the camera studies them from afar, and dismiss it as artless, boring nonsense. In this respect The Assassin sees him make little changes by applying his knack for stillness to the implicitly sweeping and frenetic wuxia genre, resulting in a film that might still be aggravating for someone looking for something more energetic, something like Zhang Yimou’s Hero or Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. That being said, the sheer beauty of its direction (and the controlled melodrama of its performances) cannot be denied.

The Assassin adapts the ancient Pei Xing story “Nie Yinniang,” in which the titular young woman (Shu Qi) is stolen from her home province of Weibo at childhood and raised to become a political assassin by a reclusive nun (Sheu Fang-yi). After sympathy causes her to fail her latest mission, Yianning is then tasked with killing her cousin, who now governs Weibo and must be eliminated to alleviate the tension between Weibo and the Imperial Court.

Hou’s signature visual style is Kubrickian in its meticulousness, with The Assassin’s costumes and sets dripping with detail and his camera keeping mercifully out of the way so that the eyes can drink in every piece of jade and every intricately designed piece of pottery in each location. Along with cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bing, Hou makes a blissful return to the 1.33:1 Academy ratio, easing viewers in with a black-and-white prologue (evocative of the best Kurosawa) before coolly shifting into the subtle, affecting colors of the Chinese countryside.

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Set in ninth-century China during a time of unrest that would eventually lead to the decline of the Tand Dynasty, "The Assassin" tells the story of Nie Yinniang (Shu Qui), who was kidnapped by her family when she was only 10 by Jiaxin (Sheu Fang-yi), a nun who trained her to become a brutally efficient assassin specializing in killing corrupt government officials. As the story begins, she demonstrates her abilities by killing her target—a man on horseback—with such lethal precision that it takes both her victim and viewers of the film a few moments to register that the deed has been done. Alas, Yinniang is not quite as ruthless as she seems to be, and when she confronts her next target and finds his young son in the room with him, she finds that she is unable to do the deed and lets him live.

This act of mercy sends Jiaxin into a rage, and she devises a plan that she believes will force Yinniang to do her duty and divest her of the sympathy that caused her to fail her previous mission. Yinniang is sent to Weibo, the largest province and one where the Imperial Court is currently of an unstable nature, to kill the governor, Lord Tian Ji'an (Chang Chen), and plunge the region into chaos. This is a bit tricky for Yinniang because not only is Lord Tian her cousin, it is revealed that before her disappearance, she was supposed to one day marry him in a union that would have helped bring lasting peace between the region and his court. Of course, Yinniang cannot bring herself to kill Lord Tian, though she does perform a series of brief ambushes designed to alert him to her presence. At the same time, Lord Tian dismisses his right-hand man, Xia Jing (Juan Ching-tian) from the court because of his outspoken nature and it is Xia's reaction to this that turns out to be the spark that incites the battles to come.

Instead of rushing through the plot-oriented material in order to get to the action, Hou allows the story to reveal itself in a deliberately slow and occasionally digressive manner that prefers having characters recount their stories directly, rather than streamlining the plot threads with flashbacks and other tricks. For those not used to this manner of storytelling, especially in the context of what is supposed to be a martial arts narrative, "The Assassin" may prove to be bewildering. That said, it should be stressed that the story is confusing but not confused, and my guess is that it will make a lot more sense upon a second viewing.

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In the seven years since Hou Hsiao-hsien began working on a ninth-century wuxia epic, his admirers have been madly curious about how the Taiwanese auteur known for such refined historical panoramas as “Flowers of Shanghai” and minor-key urban portraits like “Cafe Lumiere” would handle his rite of passage into one of China’s most storied and vigorous popular genres. We have the answer at long last in “The Assassin,” a mesmerizing slow burn of a martial-arts movie that boldly merges stasis and kinesis, turns momentum into abstraction, and achieves breathtaking new heights of compositional elegance: Shot for shot, it’s perhaps the most ravishingly beautiful film Hou has ever made, and certainly one of his most deeply transporting. Centered around a quietly riveting performance from Shu Qi, the film is destined for a limited audience to which gore-seekers with short attention spans need not apply. Still, with a Stateside release already secured and passionate critical response assured, it should emerge as one of Hou’s more commercially successful and internationally well-traveled efforts.

Freely reimagined from a story written by the Tang Dynasty scribe Pei Xing, titled “Nie Yinniang” after its formidable female protagonist, “The Assassin” employs the sort of rigorously off-center storytelling devices that will prove immediately recognizable to Hou’s worldwide fanbase: a dense historical narrative laid out with unobtrusive intricacy, a masterfully distanced sense of camera placement, and an attentiveness to mise-en-scene that is almost Kubrickian in its perfectionism, as if a single absent detail or period inaccuracy would cause the whole thing to collapse. At the same time, the director and his d.p. Mark Lee Ping Bing (shooting on 35mm film) have delivered a picture that looks markedly different not only from any of its myriad genre forebears, but also from any of their nine previous collaborations.

The differences are made clear in the film’s prologue — lensed in crisp, high-contrast black-and-white and framed in the Academy aspect ratio — which situates us amid the volatile power plays and political instabilities that marked the decline of the Tang Dynasty. It’s here that we first meet Nie Yinniang (Shu), who was abducted from her family at the age of 10 by a nun, Jiaxin (Sheu Fang-yi), who trained her to become an exceptionally lethal assassin tasked with killing corrupt officials. A lithe but imposing vision clad entirely in black, Yinniang gives us a taste of her prowess when she coolly executes a man on horseback — an act pulled off with swift, unerring skill in front of and behind the camera, making use of a whiplash edit that briefly disrupts Hou’s usual aesthetic of long takes and slow pans. But Yinniang’s ruthlessness fails her when she confronts another target and, moved by the presence of his young son, chooses to spare his life, spurring Jiaxin to send her protegee on a mission that will both punish her and rid her of all pity.

At this point, the monochrome bleeds into color and the location shifts to Weibo, the largest and strongest of the many mainland provinces, which maintain an increasingly uneasy balance of power with the Imperial Court. This is where Yinniang was born, and now, after an absence of untold years, she has quietly returned with orders to murder the governor of Weibo, Lord Tian Ji’an (the charismatic Chang Chen, previously paired with Shu in Hou’s “Three Times”), who also happens to be her cousin. Yinniang makes her presence known through a series of furtive ambushes, though as with her last assignment, she never quite goes in for the kill. Her hesitancy is rooted, we learn later, in the fact that she and Lord Tian were once betrothed, with the intention that their marriage would help maintain peace between Weibo and the Court.

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In his first directing effort since the 2007 Juliette Binoche vehicle Flight of the Red Balloon, art film master Hou Hsiao-Hsien confronts Taiwanese and Chinese myth, landscape and genre head-on. The Assassin (Nie Yinniang) is his first martial arts film and, at $15 million, his largest-budgeted project to date. As might be expected by those familiar with his work, this is an idiosyncratic, even personal view of the genre. Its bursts of lightning-fast swordplay interrupt long, still stretches of misty moonlit landscapes and follow a pure literary style more than current genre expectations. Detailed period costumes and art direction make it extraordinarily beautiful to watch, but its refinement may weigh against it for fans hungering after spectacular kung fu. The plot and characters are also hard to follow, and although this is par for the genre, game audiences will have to contend with substantial narrative ambiguity to reap the riches of an authentically poetic costumer. Still, the film can expect a warm welcome from art film fans. It has been picked up for the U.S. by Well Go.

The story opens in 9th century China where the Imperial Court and the powerful Weibo military province co-exist in an uneasy truce. The opening sequence introduces self-possessed protag Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi) and the “princess-nun” Jiaxin (Sheu Fang-yi) to whom she has been entrusted for her education. Though her parents back at the Weibo court may not know it, this consists in turning her into a killing machine of matchless skill, which she demonstrates in the pre-credit sequence. Striking with the speed of a cobra, she probably takes less than three seconds of screen time to slit the throat of a man on horseback. This is the first indication that Hou is deliberately out of the race to create longer, ever-more-astonishing and exciting aerial battles on wires; instead the film follows a formal logic of its own, where fight scenes are brief and to-the-point.

One surprise is that Hou is not shooting in anything resembling widescreen, but a modest, nearly square format that limits the number of actors who can fit into the frame. It’s a gamble that pays off in extra vertical space, which lets him exploit soulful natural locations and create images that pleasurably recall Chinese period paintings. The second shock is that exceptional D.P. Mark Lee Ping Bin is shooting in deep black and white, which is wisely dropped for bright color beginning with the next scene.

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For its sheer beauty, its mesmeric compositional sense and pure balletic poise, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s distinctive and slow-moving wuxia tale The Assassin demands attention. Although at the risk of philistinism, I now confess that for me its sometimes opaque and difficult plot means that my engagement with it can never be as absolute as it’s been for others here at Cannes, who have not hesitated to acclaim The Assassin as a masterpiece and a Palme contender. I’m not sure that I can go that far. The final spark of passion I was looking for was more a delicate firefly which floated entrancingly but elusively ahead.

But there is no doubt that The Assassin – Hou’s first feature for eight years – is a movie of great intelligence and aesthetic refinement; there is majesty and mystery in this film, particularly in the visually remarkable final minutes, when its enigmatic power begins a kind of final ascent. Hou is concerned to do something new with the wuxia genre, to take it to the next level in his own language, and I think he is more successful here than Wong Kar-wai was with his The Grandmaster. He has brought to the wuxia material his own uncompromising seriousness, and welded this seriousness to the form’s mythic resonance.

It is based on the tale of Nie Yinniang or The Assassin, from the era of the Tang dynasty: in 809, a young girl played by Shu Qi is kidnapped and trained to be an assassin. But over a decade later, she is sent away by her master after failing to complete a killing and told to return to her hometown where she has a new target: a military governor who is her cousin and first love, played by Chang Chen, and so must choose between her family, her heart and her assassin’s creed.

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ll it takes to change the temperature of a scene in The Assassin is a softly billowing brocade of silk. The first film in seven years from the Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-Hsien is an immaculate treasure box of light, texture and movement. It is one of the most purely beautiful films I have ever seen, and a late-breaking, powerhouse contender for the Palme d’Or here at Cannes.

For the first time in his 35-year filmmaking career, Hou is working in the wuxia genre, which might be described as period-drama martial arts – a genre that flourished in Hong Kong in the Sixties and Seventies, and enjoyed a “respectable” resurgence around the world in the last decade, through films such as Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Zhang Yimou’s Hero.

If you’ve seen swordsmen and/or women bounding through a bamboo forest, you’ve seen wuxia – yet you’ve almost certainly never seen it carried off with quite this degree of heart-bursting delicacy and refinement.

There’s a little forest-bounding here, but the martial arts sequences are relatively few and far between, and are aestheticised to dizzying extremes. One sword fight plays out at a distance, glimpsed through a screen of trees; another plays out in a snow-flurry of close-up swipes and swishes. What combat there is looks less like choreography than calligraphy, the warriors’ bodies swirling through shot like an ink-brush over parchment.

The majority of the film, an adaptation of a seventh-century Chinese legend about a female assassin charged with restoring balance to the crumbling Tang Dynasty court, is more static – except static is entirely the wrong word to describe the shimmering, painterly tableaux in which its (intentionally) opaque storyline plays out.

Silk curtains flutter and fall, candles glow, fires crackle softly in the grate. Every scene, every shot, has been composed with total, Kubrickian precision, and calibrated for maximum, breath-quickening impact.

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