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NYFF: The (Prettiest) Assassin

Nathaniel returning to life, albeit to watch a film about someone who ends it, on the closing weekend of the 53rd New York Film Festival

If you believe in cinema as a reflection of reality then every college should offer at least undergraduate courses in Becoming an Assassin because that profession is always hiring! According to the movies, there are more assassins in the world than accountants. Full disclosure: I'm no fan of this overflowing subgenre. Assassin movies, like their counterparts Gangster Dramas and Serial Killer Thrillers, often glorify death-dealing or at least cast their protagonists as noble "anti-heroes" or admirably gifted / committed to their criminal art. [More...]

Shu Qi, Chang Chen, and Hou Hsaio Hsien reunite for "The Assassin"

So it was somewhat refreshing to see a movie about an assassin who possibly shares common-sense distaste for the profession. The biggest surprise, and one that comes quite early in Hou Hsiao Hsien's The Assassin, is that the beautiful Yinniang (Shu Qi) doesn't seem to reap any satisfaction from her job. The black and white prologue is her graduation of sorts and when it's over she's not exactly throwing her cap in the air with glee. No one throws her a party.

Chang Chen as Tian Ji'anThe set up for the film's main story, goes like so: After Yinniang refuses to kill her first post-graduation target, her master the Nun Princess* (Sheu Fang-yi) proclaims that though Yinniang has no peers with the blade she lacks resolve and heart for her duties. As punishment (?) she is then sent home to her family with the command to kill her own estranged cousin Tian Ji'an (Chang Chen), who rules the district of Weibo**. That's the first twelve minutes.

I couldn't exactly summarize the next ninety-five even if I wanted to.

It's both amusing and eye-catching when this motion picture shifts to color and a different aspect ratio takes over during some virtuosic string instrumentation back in Weibo. (Dolan and Anderson aren't the only auteurs purposefully funking up their aspect ratios mid-movie). I can't even tell you who is playing the string instrument so aggressively in the aforementioned transitional sequence as we aren't introduced properly. Thinking back, it was probably either Yinniang's mother***, T'ian Jian's wife (Zhou Yun), or T'ian Jian's mistress (Nikki Hsin-Ying Hsieh). Those are three different characters, of course ****, but the movie nearly always skips past introductions and connective tissue when you most need it though a second viewing would surely clear things up as the movie isn't entirely opaque.

This information withholding isn't purposefully cruel or incompetent as storytelling goes. Hou is merely disinterested in it... not unlike Yinniang herself when it comes to killing. Thus the remainder of the movie becomes an exercizing in oohing and aahing over its rather mesmerizing visuals, which if you've ever seen a Hou movie may well be recommendation enough. The plot points, when they arrive, are as easy to miss until after they've hit you as the swift cuts from Yinniang's memorably curved dagger. The film's most traditionally satisfying popcorn moment, funny and exciting and story-related, actual combines the pieces of my analogy right there by dropping a soap opera plot point reveal into the sole line of dialogue (just three words) in the middle of a swordfight between the movie stars.

If the story were just confusing, that would be fine. Movies are more than their narrative after all, particularly when they're crafted with such skill. The costumes and sets and above all else Ping Bin Lee's cinematography are works of art. But Hou's complete disinterest in the narrative which admittedly creates a fascinating friction with the action -- the fight scenes nearly always end as soon as they've begun without "ending" in any particular way and they're sometimes in the back of the frame! --  proves far too alienating on an emotional level. Even if we don't quite understand what is happening, it would help to understand why it's happening or what the characters may feel about it happening. Yinniang is more of a pawn than a person (which she realizes... I think) and Shu Qi delivers one of her most opaque performances. That's an interesting if unneccessary choice; Hou Hsiao-Hsien shoots her so often behind veils, smoke, and branches that the star could have over-acted to her heart's content and still remained a mystery.

Grade: B- 
Oscar Chances: The Executive Committee could well save this one for the final round of Foreign Film voting since its one of the year's most high profile critical sensations (check that Cannes win for Best Director) but it's hard to imagine the regular Foreign Film committee voters really getting behind it during the first massive cull of titles. 

* Weibo is not to be confused with the  popular Asian social media website, but refers to one of the most powerful provinces that the ruling Dynasty fears will rise up against them. 

** I couldn't begin to tell you why a "Nun Princess" is a master of assassins. The nun and the princess parts are unexplained / unvisualized in any recognizable manner for these Western eyes but this is how people refer to the woman giving Yinniang orders.

*** I'm not entirely sure that that third option is Yinniang's mother -- perhaps it's her grandmother or another relative  -- everyone appears to be related, by blood, marriage or both, in some way.

**** In my defense I am not one of those stereotypically obtuse Americans who can't tell Asian faces apart but the movie is hard to follow and the supporting characters are as backgrounded as the action sequences.

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Reader Comments (16)

Regarding its Oscar chances... do we not think a cinematography nomination could happen (if its gets a 2015 release, I guess). It's not like that branch isn't afraid of foreign titles and it IS beautiful.

As for the film, I agree for the most part. I found its take on the assassin who struggles with their profession an interesting one and a narrative gamble given, as you say, so much of the enjoyment from this type of film also comes from the violence. However, I'm not ashamed to admit I missed some of the other stuff much more. The romance and the pulp. It felt someone cut short dramatically because the stakes for every character seems to muted or unimportant.

October 10, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

Glenn -- good point but i don't think it's getting a release this year? i could be wrong. but the cinematography battle is already SO intense this year: SICARIO, CAROL, MAD MAX, all the other best pics (cuz they can get craft noms without wowing) and the stuff we haven't seen yet with oscar-loved cinematographers like HATEFUL EIGHT, REVENANT, and so on.

October 10, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I think the women who played the string instrument is Princess Jiacheng who had been married into Weibo. She told Yinniang about the story of the dancing bird. "She herself was the bluebird" Yinniang told her father in one scene near the end. I agree with you that the story is hard to follow not because it's complex but because Hou never tried to highlight important moments. Second viewing will clear a lot of confusion for sure. Also, exquisite images and impeccable mise-en-scene can distract you a lot. Look at how he shot a scene through sheer curtains. Incredible!

October 10, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterWarin

I know this will be unpopular, but I thought the plot and characters were entirely impenetrable for the audience. This was the last film I saw after an epic two weeks of the Sydney Film Festival, so maybe my brain was tired, but I had no idea what was going on the whole time.

October 10, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoFo

I'm sorry to all. But ASSASSIN is the most ravishing visual film I have seen this year so far. If it sounds like an oxymoron, well so be it. Pure cinema is first and foremost visual. and I did too have problrems following the plotline the first time around. But same happened with Mulholland Drive and it is now one of my most treasured films. Give this another chance, and open mind and give yourself in and chances are you might falling in love out of nowhere with this slow-mo Wuxia aimed at the senses, not the thrills of an action flick. There's no crouching tigers nor flying daggers. And that's THE WHOLE POINT. Daring to be different is not that bad. Specially when genre films from all over the spectrum are becoming painfully more formulaic over time.Oh, and the plot clears up the second tiem around with a little research.

October 10, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterchofer

On a totally different topic... TFE loves to celebrate women filmmakers. So I'm curious: no tribute to Chantal Akerman who recently died?

October 11, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterIan

I still can't get my head round no Joan Allen in Supporting Nat,she is nowhere,what gives?

October 11, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMARK

I got lost in some of the particulars of the plot too, but I did not find it emotionally opaque at all! Quite the contrary, I thought there was a great well of feeling simmering through nearly every frame. It's a tone poem of sorts, with the images and sounds and textures Hou conjures carrying the meaning and emotion of the piece much more than story beats or declarative acting. That makes it sort of a quintessential Not For Everyone kind of movie, and I wouldn't fault people for being lost or wanting more. I'd just say that it really bowled me over and I can't wait to luxuriate in those meditative silences, those veiled compositions, those pulsating drum beats, those whip fast action sequences, again. This is a total master class by Hou - not just of composition, movement and design, but of sound and editing as well. One of the year's best, for me.

October 11, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRoark

Roark: I coulldn't describe the film any much better!!

October 11, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterchofer

I think I could follow roughly as much of the plot as you could but boy, did that not bother me

This is a movie to get drunk on. It felt like every single shot made my heart beat faster

And even without knowing the full story - often before the pertinent plot details are even revealed - there are so many moments in this film of a given person in contemplative silence that I found so indescribably moving (and I usually find that kind of thing alienating)

Also, it's worth mentioning that while from a Western perspective the abrupt ends to the fight scenes are jarring, in many ways that's very true to traditional Japanese films (though that's admittedly a very different tradition to wu xia)

I do also love more traditional wu xia but I am so grateful to have had this kind of experience of a completely idiosyncratic, rigorous auteur taking on a traditional genre and doing something that's completely his own but also legitimately employs familiar genre tropes.

I mean, just the mere idea of of Hou Hsiao-hsien doing a wu xia epic is so mind boggling. It's like Terence Malick doing a slasher horror or Jafar Panahi doing a Western or Lars von Trier doing a musical (exactly)

I live for these things

October 11, 2015 | Unregistered Commentergoran

Well said, Goran! If the critics in USA don't bother about it, they'll miss something unique and astounding for what it is. And to those who think otherwise, I wish you an end of season in hell with all the Oscar-bait biopics and turpid genre-formula films they will surely recommend to you! This needs word of mouth ASAP!

October 11, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterchofer

chofer, roark, & goran -- i am thrilled that you guys loved it. I like people to be besotted with cinema and Hou is really a wonderful visual stylist and it's easy to see why people get drunk on his movies (i still think about THREE TIMES sometimes out of the blue for no reason other than how pretty it was and how much it made me fall in love with the stars... and of course FLIGHT OF THE RED BALLOON is just sublime.)

but i can also only speak for my own response to a movie and I found this one alienating. I just wasn't getting anything from the "contemplative silences" other than opacity. I have no concept of what Yinniang was feeling. I generally like to have some room for my own imagination... which is why I respond well to minimalist performances sometimes but this was too minimalist for even me.

October 11, 2015 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I was also drunk on Hou's marvelous visual compositions. There's so much life in each of his frames (often it seems like he's directing nature itself), even when the principal actors have walled their private selves from the audience. Yet, I didn't find the performances to be opaque at all (Shu Qi is particularly moving in the conveying of her suppression/repression... the weariness of her constant struggle breaks in the most subtle of expressions).

I'm also one of the few spectators who didn't find the story confusing the least. Though I'm sure there are many more layers of depth I can unearth on a second viewing. Here's my understanding, should this be of benefit to those who have watched it (SPOILERS AHEAD):

1. The Nun Princess (master to Yinniang) is an imperial princess whose twin was married off to Chang Chen's father in Weibo.
2. The string instrumentation sequence is of the Nun Princess, singing about sorrow from isolation (Yinniang confirms this in a later scene with her uncle). My interpretation is that both princesses were sent to Weibo.
3. Her sister, however, quickly assimilated to Weibo's culture (it was revealed by Yinniang's aunt that she sent her entire entourage back home to the Imperial palace). She is also the one who betrothed Yinniang to Tian Ji'an, but had to later retract this marriage in favour of a political marriage to a nearby province (Tian's current wife).
4. As a result, Yinniang had to leave. Her renounced betrothal and childhood friendship still marked her as a threat to the new political marriage. She was sent to the Nun Princess for her protection. I also extrapolated that her parents were also in danger and may have been banished (and buried alive).
5. The Nun princess and her twin had different political allegiances. Her twin helped solidify Weibo's political muster with nearby provinces in order to enhance its standing at the negotiating table with the imperial palace. The Nun princess wants only what is best for the imperial palace. She sends Yinniang to kill Tian Ji'an for this purpose.
6. It was also later revealed in dialogue that Tian Ji'an's father was once the victim of a similar voodoo assassination attempt. Tian Ji'an's father accused the Nun Princess (not a nun then) of perpetrating this, and chased her up the mountains to a temple. The Nun Princess denies stooping so low to involve in the dark arts.
7. Yinniang graduates from being taught to see in black and white to seeing in colour, to the dismay of the Nun Princess. Tian Ji'an's two women represent the two foils to her character, and the life choices they represent. The queen is also another assassin (the one with the gold mask), another political pawn serving another master; while the concubine represents her lost love and innocence, a lamb in wolves' den. At the end, she follows neither path, and forges her own.

October 12, 2015 | Unregistered Commentersosowie

Flight of the Red Balloon is indeed sublime :) I hope we can all agree on that.

October 12, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRoark

Hope The Assassin is nominated for its cinematography. It has at least one vote from Ed Lachman - at his NYFF talk last week, he expressed his admiration, bringing up the film on three separate occasions.

October 12, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterrenee

Wow sosowie! Yo narrations clear up everytink! Thx!

Fyi, It was rumored tt Shu Qi lost best actress at The Golden Horse by only ONE vote, not bcos of her actin abilities, but by her impenetrable role. The winner, Karena Lam had a similar role but w more emotional outlet

November 29, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterClaran

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