Hou Hsiao-Hsien Emerges with Deliberate, Evocative 'Assassin'

Directed by: Hou Hsiao-Hsien; Runtime: 105 minutes
Grade: B+

The spectrum that typically comes to mind for the martial-arts genre ranges from the briskly-paced and hyper-violent to the prolonged and poetic, yet both sides usually exhibit more than enough energetic fight sequences to earn the distinction of an action movie. Leave it to a low-key, calculated director like Taiwan's legendary Hou Hsiao-Hsien to challenge that status quo with a trip outside his comfort zone, or, perhaps more accurately, by incorporating his comfort zone into the rhythm of wuxia storytelling. Enter The Assassin, a historical drama about political maneuverings and family woes that's driven by the decisions and actions of a "woman in black", a killer at the end of her training in the midst of a conflict with the ethical boundaries of her profession. Hou Hsiao-Hsien's carefully-crafted imagery and purposeful dramatic style forge a unique morality tale in his long-awaited return to feature-length cinema, where the displays of the assassin's capabilities exist to compliment her personal journey instead of deliberately getting the blood flowing.

Loosely adapted from a historical short story, The Assassin takes place in eighth-century China amid political insecurity and flux during the Tang dynasty. A talented young assassin, Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), who was taken at a young age to learn the craft, fails to complete an essential duty near the end of her training process, due to a judgment call on her part. At the behest of her master, the Taoist nun Jiaxin (Fang-Yi Sheu), she is instructed to complete another mission as a mixture of punishment and a test of her resolve toward her duties: to kill the military governor of northern China's Weibo province, Tian Ji'an (Chang Chen), her cousin to whom she was once betrothed. When she arrives, Yinniang confronts the events of her past that forced her down the path of becoming an assassin, which again puts her in a place where she must choose between her personal code of ethics and the obedient code of professional, objective killers.

The Assassin starts off with a graceful black-and-white sequence that swiftly establishes the scope of Nie Yinniang's talent as a killer and her ethical restrictions as an assassin, an effective primer for the temperament of a warrior whose silence and stoicism rarely convey her emotional state. Hou Hsiao-Hsien lets her actions speak for themselves amid the silence while she's surrounded by the rustling of trees and the movement of sheer curtains, providing a frame of reference for the (mostly) Academy ratio color cinematography that follows upon arriving at her new destination. The director's awareness of body language and aesthetics as their own storytelling devices result in an unhurried pace within his martial-arts drama, lingering on the strums of a traditional Chinese guqin, steam emitting from a bathtub, and melancholy conversations about the assassin's lineage amid a stunning realization of the era. Sophisticated costume work and set designs toe the line between iconic and naturalistic throughout the dazzling camerawork from Mark Lee Ping Bing, sumptuously transporting our point-of-view to the period while giving the eyes plenty to absorb.

The steady throbbing of a drum in The Assassin's otherwise quiet background ambiance facilitates an uneasy and intuitive escalation of suspense, heralding the presence of the much talked-about assassin around her targets. Anticipating her stealthy arrival in the ornate, heavily-guarded spaces of royalty naturally becomes one of the draws to the tale, yet her enigmatic motivations and mortal limitations transform expectations of what's to come. Nie Yinniang's lineage interweaves with the esoteric frustrations and collisions of the region's politics into a tale with a specific focus and layers of intrigue, depicting how she's turned into a lethal byproduct of the archaic and fickle system. The piercing eyes and sculpted jaw of Three Times actress Shu Qi express just the right amount of saddened determination for the demands of the role, her sharp features emerging from shadows while eavesdropping on the scheming of politicians and long, forlorn conversations involving her past. While these scenes can, at times, become too engrossed with their own lengthy takes and atmospheric rhythm, there's also something markedly entrancing about their personalized tempo.

When action scenes do emerge throughout The Assassin, they're not without a clear purpose or an organic extension from Nie Yinniang's conflict of virtue over service. A combination of tight, inconstant choreography and distanced shots of the combat -- typically against the dazzling mountainous and forested expanses -- result in potent sequences that relish the quick snick of blades and the thump of arrows into bodies, emphasizing her stealth capabilities in gripping yet modest bursts. By design, these aren't the gory, exploitative displays traditionally found in the genre, instead kept concise and matter-of-fact in how she responds to groups of armed soldiers or duels with other capable assassins. Staying faithful to his intimate perspective, Hou Hsiao-Hsien holds the focus on an artful character portrayal of the assassin herself instead of the abundant carnage she could feasibly leave in her wake, lending weight to every homicidal decision she undertakes along her journey toward redemption. Nie Yinniang's decisions have sprawling repercussions across the region, but they're not as rousing as the personal impact they exact upon her outlook on what she's been brought up to do.

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