Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin is the rare type of cinema that begs for an audience that it is likely to not find, at least in the US. For starters, you have one of contemporary Asia’s most gifted and recognizable filmmakers working today and doing so within the established – and highly successful – Wuxia genre. But herein lies the major issue with a film like The Assassin: who is it for? Well, for one, it’s absolutely for me (and we’ll get to why soon) but if the reactions at the screening I attended or the current slew of one star IMDB reviews are any indication, a certain portion of the movie-going public won’t be sharing in my enthusiasm any time soon. Hou’s film is absolutely Wuxia, in every regard, but it’s also a drama first and foremost. And a slow moving one at that. One that rewards, and perhaps relishes, contemplation as much as it does the sudden bursts of violence that many viewers will be expecting more of. The Assassin isn’t easy to define, and is likely extremely difficult to market, but it is bombastic, vital cinema the kind of which we seldom see either domestic or abroad now.
The Assassin starts in black and white, gorgeously rendered on contrasty 35mm and framed in a 1.33:1 ratio. Hou’s most recent work starts out feeling older than anything that he has done prior. It’s a period piece set in 9th century China – honestly a time and place that I’m very unfamiliar with – and it spares no detail (or likely expense) establishing that. This black and white prologue introduces us to our titular character (Shu Qi) in a series of brief scenes that are sublime in their simplicity. When Hou switches to color, the screen momentarily opens up to a 1.85 ratio, which I expected it to conform to for its duration following, but it doesn’t. The Assassin switches back to 1.33 for the rest of its runtime, showcasing sweeping vistas and intricately designed locales in a boxy ratio that wouldn’t usually befit the material. The result is something almost painterly, like the backdrops in Black Narcissus, and it allows for scenes of intense motion to always feel confined.
Hou spent the last fifteen years or so making tight dramas of interpersonal and/or romantic communication – Flight of the Red Balloon, Three Times, Millennium Mambo – and The Assassin, in a much more overtly theatrical manner, picks that up and adapts in to Wuxia. The storyline here is almost deceptively simple, perhaps even too thin for its relatively meager 105 minute runtime, and surprisingly (and impressively) melodramatic with our titular assassin being pulled in different directions by loyalty to family/love/country and/or a lack thereof on any or all fronts. The violence and subsequent action – if it can even be deemed such – in Hou’s film is at service of the story itself rather than ever taking control. Anyone looking for drawn out fight sequences or over-the-top wire work will be sorely displeased here. When conflict does arise – and, make no mistake, it most definitely does – it is dealt with deftly and with utter finesse. I’m not sure that anyone would consider Hou a director of genre cinema – though Goodbye, South, Goodbye provides a good argument for inclusion in a contemporary crime canon – and The Assassin likely won’t change that, but he has brought a grace to the Wuxia genre that I’m not sure had ever been present before or at least was never this pronounced.
Where The Assassin is at its best is when it is nearly silent. The establishing shots of the dense forests, plumes of steam/fog, and candlelit interiors are transcendent and typically all but absent from anything resembling genre cinema like this. Over the past decade, it felt like everything Hou was making had something to say but with The Assassin it feels like he has said it all and is just taking a step back and letting the images take over. It’s sublime, elegant work from someone in complete control of his aesthetic and narrative, yet doesn’t always need the two to coexist. There is most certainly an audience for Hou’s film but it isn’t likely to be the one that will initially welcome it with open arms. It’s genre cinema for people who are sick of the genre and want – or need – something more. It’s here. Go get it.