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Sleeper of the Week: Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s ‘The Assassin’

Sleeper of the Week: Hou Hsiao-Hsien's 'The Assassin'

Sleeper of the Week takes a film that only few critics have seen and shines some light on it.

“The Assassin”
Dir: Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Criticwire Average: A-

Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s take on the wuxia genre “The Assassin” follows Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), who is taken from her family at a young age and raised to be a killer by a nun Jiaxin (Sheu Fang-yi). She’s sent on assignment to return to her home province and kill the governor Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen), a man whom she was promised marriage at a very young age. During her trip, she has to reconcile her feelings about her parents, her kidnapping, and her conflicted feelings towards her old love. “The Assassin” has blown many critics away with Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s methodical, trance-inducing long takes and unfixed camera movements coupled with working in the martial arts genre. Though some find it oblique and impenetrable, many are calling it one of the very best films of the year, one of remarkable, sustained vision and grace. A true accomplishment from a celebrated auteur.

More thoughts from the Criticwire Network:

Nick Schager, The Daily Beast

For his latest, “The Assassin,” for which he won Best Director at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, he travels back in time to 9th century China during the reign of the Tang Dynasty for a saga about a trained killer on a covert mission — a premise that finds Hou working in a distinctly genre-y vein, even as he warps familiar conventions to his own unique, astounding ends. That’s apparent from Hou’s opening black-and-white shot, which commences with a pair of donkeys at a hillside tree before panning to black-clad Nie Yinniang (favorite Hou leading lady Shu Qi, in a mesmerizing near-silent performance) and her white-robed mentor Jiaxin (Sheu Fang-yi) as the latter gives the former an order to dispatch an unidentified man with bird-like swiftness. This scene proceeds at a calm, contemplative pace, only to then be shattered by a sudden attack — in this instance, Yinniang leaping, spinning mid-air, and slicing the throat of her target, who tumbles, partially out of focus, from his steed. That interplay between deliberate inaction and fleet conflict defines “The Assassin,” which operates as if it were a dream, employing Hou’s trademark long takes and unhurried camera movements to lull one into a trance, the better to then deliver thrills through jolts of measured, expertly choreographed violence. Read more.

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, The A.V. Club

Enigmatic and often mesmerizing, super-saturated with color, drawn like a still plain ripped by brief, unexpected gusts of wind — “The Assassin” is one of the most flat-out beautiful movies of the last decade, and also one of the most puzzling. Returning to features after a prolonged absence, Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-Hsien has made a martial-arts period piece like none other, keeping to the classic principles and conventions of wuxia — the storied Chinese genre of wandering warriors and codes of honor — while casting them in a mysterious light. Bold takes on popular genres generally set out to de-mystify, but Hou has accomplished the opposite. Washing away centuries of film and fiction, he envisions a tale from the Tang dynasty — about a deadly martial artist who must kill the man to whom she was once betrothed — as a window into the haunted otherworld of the mythic past. Read more.

Mark Olsen, The L.A. Times

With costumes and set design by Hwarng Wern-Ying and cinematography by Hou’s longtime director of photography Mark Lee Ping Bing, the film has a fine, filigreed beauty. It’s like looking inside a jewel box. Many sets were built not on soundstages but out-of-doors so that natural light could be used. The stunning landscapes, most in northeast China, are rough and rugged, but with an undercurrent of etched delicacy. A climactic confrontation between Yinniang and Jiaxin occurs on the edge of a cliff as a fog rolls in and envelops them. Much like “The Assassin” overall, the scene’s combination of majesty and mystery seems nothing short of magic. Read more.

Ella Taylor, NPR

If you haven’t seen any of Hou’s films (I recommend starting with his brilliant 1989 political drama “A City of Sadness”), the progression from one seemingly unedited scene to the next can seem slow, even static. Between the lines of the interior long shots that Hou favors (except, perhaps, in the impish “Flight of the Red Balloon,” his only film shot in the West, with Juliette Binoche in the lead), a complicated political economy of long-repressed feeling is at work that deepens without fanfare into repressed political conflict. Will Yinniang follow orders and carry out the harsh retributive justice embedded in her job description, or obey the ties of love, blood and family that draw her back home? There’s a way to read her choice as a rebuke to all the woman warriors currently rampaging through Hollywood’s movie franchises, as if feminism were a matter of doing what the boys do, only more so. The most tacit and elliptical of filmmakers, Hou would never say so. The nearest thing to exposition in “The Assassin” comes in a black-and-white prologue that shows who and what shaped Yinniang into a toxic avenger. Like many of his films, “The Assassin” may be said to pursue an underground obsession with Taiwan’s tortured relationship to the mainland that, on and off, has dominated it for centuries. You don’t need any of this to fall in love and abandon yourself to the movie’s exquisite landscapes, at once serene and melodramatic, revel in Hou’s stealthy cutaways to quivering blossoms, or listen to the birdsong and the wind ruffling trees that counterpoint the bloodshed. With and without allegory, to watch “The Assassin” is to be carried along in the river of life, in all its ecstasy and terror. Read more.

Matt Prigge, Metro

I’ve only seen the film once, so I can’t say more than the superficial: that the long stretches of hypnotic filmmaking are indeed hypnotic; that the glacial-then-speedy-then-glacial-again pace is pleasingly jarring; that there’s definite feminist subtext about women dominating over a long history of patriarchy. That last bit seems on-the-nose for Hou, who prefers transcendence and observation — stray bits of meticulously staged life glimpsed in seemingly disassociated chunks. (His last film, “The Flight of the Red Balloon,” made in France with Juliette Binoche, is among the gentlest and most serene films ever made.) There are more mysteries to be teased out of “The Assassin,” but it’s definitely a strange beast that mixes the high and the low, right down to a jaunty song over the oddly traditional final shot. But jerking you around is part of the fun. Read more.

A.O. Scott, The New York Times

Where do the assassin’s loyalties lie? Will affection and family feeling override her professional duties? And how will her target, Ji’an, reconcile the demands of power and mercy? He seems like a thoughtful, sensitive man, but his survival may depend on his ability to be cruel and cunning. These problems are addressed — or at least gestured at — in a series of decorous, elliptical scenes. Mr. Hou is a reluctant dramatizer, preferring the oblique indication of emotion to its direct expression. In many of his movies, the feelings that characters might be experiencing are displaced into the light, the scenery, the nuances of quiet that surround them. This can produce, in movies like “Three Times” and “Millennium Mambo,” a special kind of bliss, a sense of being moved by invisible forces that are at the same time right in front of your eyes. “The Assassin,” in contrast, offers subdued and partial delights. It reminds you of the sublime and enigmatic power of cinematic images without quite supplying the grandeur of mystery. Mr. Hou rejects some of the traditional satisfactions of the wuxia genre — the intricate but orderly plotting; the jolts of romantic passion and vengeful rage; the kinetic excitement — without offering much in their place. The film is intriguing, but ultimately opaque, a lovely, inert object that offers, in the name of movie love, an escape from so much that is vital and interesting about movies. Read more.

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