The Assassin (2015)

by Ryan J. Gimarc

Much of The Assassin, Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s latest film derived from Tang Dynasty legend, operates not unlike the film’s title card. In deep cuts of red, the Chinese symbol depicting the film’s title lays atop the serenity of a pond, the crimson of the title laying on top of the orange hues of daybreak, the water reflecting the seemingly endless sky. Every part of the shot has been carefully captured into the relatively skinny 1:33 frame, and we hold this for no less than forty seconds. To say that The Assassin unfolds slowly is bit of a red herring—like Hou’s films often are, this movie is deliberate and stately, as though the characters are not just performing for the camera but for the director himself. I suppose, in a way, they are. 

Set in 9th century China, the film sees Yinniang, the eponymous killer, fail to carry out one of the tasks given to her by Jiaxin, a nun who has been both her guardian and master for years now. After this showing of mercy, Yinniang is punished by being ordered to use her skills on a target of a more personal sway: her cousin, whom she was at one point destined to wed. Much of The Assassin operates within this chasm, between the physical and the mind, ability and empathy. These traits, and their inability to coexist, are most openly offered as bookends to the film, in conversations between Yinniang and Jiaxin. Yet all of this fits into a much grander political context, one of shifting power and local control (these stakes are introduced with the film’s opening text). Occasionally these two stories interact and overlay, and the tone and craft of Hou’s epic shift into high gear when they do, almost exclusively through sharp fits of violence.

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Hou is a director that, over a career that’s spanned into four decades now, has honed in on a practical and unique style of shooting which involves slow, deliberate movements with fewer cuts than many of his modern counterparts. In The Assassin, the Taiwanese director puts on full display the power of the slow pan, turning the camera from side to side from an almost exclusively stationary angle, utilizing the technique both indoor and out. When used in the expansive outdoors, the camera pivots to follow the action, such as a group of riders on horseback exiting a canyon, embarking on a long journey. Indoors, pans are generally much slower, sometimes refusing to show Yinniang’s reaction to a story as the camera every so gently tilts in her direction. Oftentimes, this feels like an onlooker surveying a room, as does the assassin in many situations, hiding up in the rafters of the gorgeous wooden structures. 

Within each shot is a careful assortment of beauty, in objects and people, in buildings and scenery. Whether with elaborate costumes, willow trees, or drapes lush with elaborate designs and beautiful color, every frame is stuffed with an overwhelming sense of place. Both inside and out, everything about The Assassin reflects the times it depicts, where notices of political happenings come by messenger, and are delivered in great halls amongst much deliberation. Gentlemen with groomed facial hair and furrowed brows gather around tiny wooden desks, discussing their next great move, unaware that the province may not be in their hands at all, but rather in the abilities of one truly badass woman, who herself is deliberating on her next assignment. 

The Assassin is screening at UICA from Nov 13—Dec 3, get a complete list of showtimes at uica.org/the-assassin.