‘The Assassin’ is a work of unparalleled, violent beauty

By Nate Taskin

Official "The Assassin" Facebook Page
(Official “The Assassin” Facebook Page)

In response to every establishing shot in “The Assassin,” a collective gasp reverberated around the audience.

Hou Hsiao-Hsien, a fantastic filmmaker who neither has a chance, at nor shows any interest, in mainstream international success, has crafted a wuxia film about a fearsome killer who must weigh the implications behind every stroke of her dagger.

To behold a single frame of “The Assassin” is to bathe inside a kaleidoscopic portrait of dynamite colors. Can I describe the movie in adjectives beyond “stunning” and “resplendent”? They sound hyperbolic, yet these words still fail to do justice to the visual splendor that Hou has crafted. It’s fair to call this movie one of the most gorgeous ever made.

Adapted from a Tang Dynasty legend, “The Assassin” acts as a powerful morality tale about the nature of choices, and how we can rise above the assignments that we are given and become more than mere tools. The film anchors itself around the actions – and sometimes lack thereof – of Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), a general’s daughter kidnapped and molded by a nun (humorless even by nun standards) into a killer of almost supernatural prowess.

We witness the final stages of her assassination education in the first eight minutes of the film, which Hou captures in striking black and white photography so crisp that I wanted the images to remain those two hues for the entirety of the film.

Of course, once Hou switches to his vivid rainbow palette, I felt the need to slap myself across the face for such an ignorant thought to enter my head. Hou is just one of those directors who never chooses to settle, even when it seems like he can’t top himself.

In this monochromatic prologue, Yinniang is assigned two targets. The first man, a venal official on horseback, is felled by a flawless stroke to the jugular. Yinniang kills with such grace and maintains such poise that it becomes easy to mistake murder for dance.

Yinniang’s hand wavers, though, when she confronts her second target. His crime is unknown, and all we see from him is a man who sits contentedly in his house as he plays with his son. This scene of familial tenderness – of a childhood that reminds of how her own was snatched away from her – compels Yinniang to show mercy.

As punishment, the nun orders Yinniang to travel to Northern China and dispatch a military governor, who also happens to be Yinniang’s cousin and one-time suitor.

Anyone familiar with wuxia films like “House of Flying Daggers” or “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” and not Hou’s other work, like “The Puppetmaster” or “A City of Sadness,” may walk into “The Assassin” with a skewed set of expectations for what the film plans to offer them.

Hou sees to it that those expectations are quickly struck down. Cautious and meditative, the film uses violence sparingly. For a film that exemplifies a sense of fantastical otherworldliness, the duels feel naturalistic in their assertive choreography. Though this film features exhilarating martial arts sequences, it is far from a traditional martial arts picture.

Instead, the film preoccupies itself with the moments that lie in between each strike, kick and twirl. A film about how the shadows of the past influence the complicated choices that we make every day, most of the conflict lies in internal torment. Hou drapes his scenes in translucent curtains, always hinting at wider truths waiting to be unveiled at any second.

At its heart, the film acts as a character study of a woman who must find a way to craft her own identity once her agency and sense of self-fulfillment is stripped away from her. Shu Qi embodies the quiet assassin as if she was a coiled shadow that slinks through narrow corridors and haunts every corner of a vast mansion. She owns the movie, even if she spends large chunks of it as a fly on the wall; lurking on the edges of the frame as she listens in on intimate conversations like a hawk as it stalks a mouse.

Exquisite, luscious color pervades “The Assassin.” With its crystal blue lakes, inferno orange skies, thick green forests, stark yellow grain fields and delicately embroidered pink and tangerine silk garments, the film made me feel like my mind and body had been consumed by a languorous haze.

Hou’s love of long, panoramic takes ensures that we have plenty of time to bask in the film’s majesty, and, though he shoots from a distance, we always feel invited to lean in closer and revel in its splendor.

Nate Taskin can be reached at [email protected]