THE ASSASSIN (Nie Yinniang) A-
Taiwan China Hong Kong France (107 mi) 2015 d: Hou Hsiao-hsien Official site [Japan]
Taiwan China Hong Kong France (107 mi) 2015 d: Hou Hsiao-hsien Official site [Japan]
Winner of the Best Director at Cannes, shot on 35 mm by longtime cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin, this is undoubtedly one of the most ravishingly beautiful films ever seen, thought of during the screening as a cross between Wong Kar-wai’s ASHES OF TIME REDUX (2008, from 1994 version) and Kurosawa in 3D. From the outset one can’t help but be impressed by the luxuriousness of the images and the multiple layers of form that exist like wavy tree branches swaying in the breeze, with someone seen stirring in the shadows, moving slowly between the various fields of visions, as rocky crevices seemingly protrude off the screen, where movement is expressed by changes of focus within the frame of the same shot, continually altering the depth perception of the viewer, offering an experience like no other. While this is Hou Hsiao-hsien’s rendering of a Wuxia film, slow and hypnotically mesmerizing, thoughtfully accentuating the historical period detail in a film drenched in a painterly opulence that supersedes any consideration for action sequences, credit must be given to costumes and production designer Huang Wen-ying that so illustriously recreates the meticulous look of the 9th century, including paintings on the set that were drawn by students from the academy of fine arts in Taipei, while also featuring the captivatingly percussive music by Lim Giong, as there isn’t a single frame that doesn’t appear in synch with the director’s artistic vision. The problem, as there is for most all martial arts films, is there’s simply not much of a story, and what little there is feels overshadowed by the luminous dreamlike quality of the film. His first costume drama since the hypnotic allure of Flowers of Shanghai (Hai shang hua) (1998), and his first feature in 8 years since THE FLIGHT OF THE RED BALLOON (2007), this is an almost equally financed Taiwan-China production (also a first for this director) costing ten times more than any of his previous works, adapted from a 9th century short story from the Tang Dynasty scribe Pei Xing, known as chuanqi, freely reimagined by the director who has had this film in mind for the past 25 years, initially written in very precise, classical Chinese language, simplified in the English subtitles for easier comprehension, yet also pared down again by the director who refuses to reveal too much, eliminating all extraneous material, leaving behind only a minimalist, barebones outline of a story.
Set in a time when the Imperial Court and the Weibo province (the largest and strongest of the many provinces) co-exist in an uneasy alliance when various military factions are still vying for power and control in China, the film is named after the lead character, Nie Yinniang, Shu Qi from THREE TMES (2005), exiled by her family at the age of ten where she was raised by Jiaxin (Sheu Fang-yi), a princess turned Taoist nun, a near mythological creature that trains her to become a lethal assassin charged with the task of targeting a tyranny of governors that avoid the authority of the Emperor in the Imperial Court. In the opening prologue, filmed in black and white, condensed into a boxed 1:37 aspect ratio, we see Yinniang (which means Hidden Woman) dressed entirely in black, waiting patiently lurking in the shadows before springing into action, literally flying across the screen, striking a lethal blow, slitting the throat of a man on horseback, all happening in the blink of an eye, seemingly faster than the eye can see. When it becomes apparent what’s happened, the stunned guards react angrily, but all we see are flashes of swords chasing through the foliage of a dense forest that fades into darkness. Moving on to the house of her next prey, she is once again a near invisible presence, but decides not to strike her intended victim, preferring not to kill him in front of his young son seen innocently chasing after a butterfly. This sentiment clearly angers her teacher, believing the art of killing is coldblooded efficiency, with all emotions held in check. As a test of her resolve, Jiaxin sends her on a mission to murder the governor of Weibo, the place where Yinniang was born. Upon returning to the familiar grounds of her family home after the passage of who knows how many years, a place she no longer has any connection to, the frame expands to widescreen along with bursts of color, as the opening title greets the audience set against the crimson colors of a stunning landscape shot at sunset. What follows is a stream of confusion, as Hou introduces a flurry of new characters each with differing motives, including a new palace aflutter with rumors and political turmoil in an expanding interior architectural design featuring stunning ornamental decors, blending the lavish elegance and color of the silk robes illuminated by candlelight with the curtains blowing in the breeze. Once again, the camera pans around the corners of existing layers that exist within the frame of each composition, where Yinniang lurks in hidden places only the audience sees.
Chang Chen, previously paired with Shu Qi in THREE TIMES (2005), having evolved from the young 14-year old nonprofessional lead in Edward Yang’s masterwork A BRIGHTER SUMMER DAY (1991), plays the targeted governor Lord Tian Ji’an, the most powerful leader in the Weibo province, who just happens to be Yinniang’s cousin, where once they were young lovers slated to be married, but we learn his mother betrayed her, so she was sent away instead, and a political marriage was arranged between two powerful families in order to help maintain the peace between Weibo and the Imperial Court. One of the more poignant aspects of the film is revealed when Lord Tian explains the significance of two matching jade pieces that he and Yinniang were given as children. All of this adds an element of intrigue surrounding her mission, as she’s ordered to kill a man she once loved. In the flurry of activity inside the palace, Lord Tian has problems of his own, where the supposed peace appears to be crumbling, angrily banishing a young lord for speaking unwisely, sending soldiers after him to bury him alive, leading to a confrontation with Yinniang in a gorgeously realized ambush in the birch trees, while his wife Lady Tian (Zhou Yun) is growing more increasingly hostile towards his favorite concubine, Huji (Hsieh Hsin-ying), who is concealing her pregnancy. Making matters worse, Lord Tian is regularly approached by a seemingly dark presence that appears out of the shadows, always arriving unexpectedly, none more amusing than when Yinniang reveals herself to the Lord by falling from the roof and coming face-to-face to announce Huji’s pregnancy, then disappearing just as quickly into the night. One of the more bizarre scenes features Yinniang having to dual a literal mirror image of herself, another female adversary in a gold mask, which suggests she’s from a wealthy house, in contrast to the black outfit worn by Yinniang. While this scene is never explained and is more of a puzzle than anything else, with some suggesting she’s fighting her own inner demons, the lady in the gold mask is none other than Lady Tian, apparently unhappy with the way Yinniang has returned to meddle in her husband’s affairs, also showing she’s willing to fight any perceived threat to her own family’s position in Weibo, playing a more complex, Lady Macbeth role (even more devious later), which gives Yinniang reason to pause. Of interest, the lady in the gold mask and Lady Tian were two different characters in the original script, but were merged into one by the final shooting.
One of the more sinister characters behind the scenes is a bald wizard with huge eyebrows and an overflowing beard, viewed as a martial arts master with magic powers (perhaps the teacher of Lady Tian), who makes paper dolls carrying demonic spells. In the one supernatural sequence of the film, the doll produces a poisonous fog that seems to disintegrate the unsuspecting Huji, only to be thwarted by the intervention of Yinniang who discovers the murderous plot. When the soldiers find the old wizard, they shoot him with a volley of arrows. In Hou’s original conception, however, the old man magically escapes by disappearing in front of the soldiers, leaving the arrows to find only his clothes that remain without a human body. But Hou never found a way to make this look convincing, so the old man perished. Certainly one of the most gorgeous scenes is a rhapsodic ceremonial sequence that is literally drenched in the visual extravagance of Oriental fantasies, which is an astonishing physical reconstruction of 9th century Weibo. Populating the landscape with remarkably dense forests from Inner Mongolia and China’s Hubei province, the martial arts sequences are themselves conceived as short bursts of energy, viewed as a perfect economy of the spirit, practicing humility, while always maintaining harmonious balance according to the teachings of the I Ching. According to interviews, Hou has indicated viewers may need to see this film as many as three times in order to fully understand the intricacies involved, first to get a rough idea of the artistic presentation, second to understand the story buried so deeply within the rich textures of the film, and third to fully appreciate just how extraordinary this film is. It does pose a Shakespearean dilemma posed in Hamlet, but in this film, which audaciously features an assassin as the protagonist, it asks the question: to kill or not to kill? Spending most of the movie waiting and ponderously observing, the character could serve as an alter ego or stand-in for the filmmaker himself, as Yinniang is torn between the teachings of her Taoist master to carry out her assignment, while also having to contend with her own family, as her father is an advisor to Lord Tian, to whom she may still have an unspoken connection of her own, becoming something of a prolonged battle of wills. While it’s extremely unusual for a lead character to only have about nine speaking lines, her opaque, gravely toned down performance matches the severity of her mission, which allows the audience to interpret what she’s experiencing while continuously looming behind the scenes. While she’s curiously indecisive, playing to the strength of her mental resolve to evaluate in its entirety just how things are playing out in the Weibo palace before she acts, only intervening from time to time, as she allows the natural order of things to unfold while assailing the unpredictable fluctuations of history and time. When all is said and done, she emerges as the master of her own destiny, much like the director who has made yet another film unlike anyone else, redefining the well-traveled genre as an art form that can literally transport an audience back into another mystical time and place in breathtaking fashion.