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The Assassin will begin playing at the Music Box Theater October 30th
Watching The Assassin is like when you’re driving at night through fog so thick you can’t see the road, and maddeningly, you’re stuck driving 15 miles per hour. The Assassin moves roughly as fast, its characters as cloaked in darkness, and its plot that cloudy. But, also like a midnight road engulfed in fog, The Assassin is beautiful. And it is. Celebrated Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien uses a myriad of gorgeous, nearly ethereal locations around China that suck you into its otherworldly zone. With a plot so abstract that it makes the ending to 2001: A Space Odyssey seem over-explained, this is one of the least accessible but nevertheless rewarding martial arts movies ever made.
The Assassin, which was awarded best director at the Cannes Film Festival, seems like an odd fit for the formalist ambitions of Hou. It’s an entry into the genre of wuxia, the ancient Chinese tradition of stories set around deadly assassins, here set in 9th century. And an odd fit it is—not one second passes where The Assassin could be mistaken for anything other than a Hou Hsiao-Hsien film; meaning it is quiet, contemplative, and slow as a snail. Kill Bill this is not. Action junkies beware, the trailer is an empty promise. The Assassin has less onscreen action than a common episode of Family Feud. When blades are drawn, it’s bloodless, visceral, but most of all, quick. As a master assassin doing her deadly work, she slices into her targets with effortless speed.
More than one action scene unfolds 50 feet from the nearest camera with no temptation to cut closer. Violence simply happens, and the staple long-take photography in Hou’s work empowers the relationship between physical action and the space it occupies. Even in the case where trees hide the intensely choreographed action, the camera’s gaze remains unphased. It stays still, watching.
In what many will call a miscalculation, Hou’s as uninterested in plot or character as he is in action, at least in any conventional sense. In a movie that might have been more aptly titled Crouching Tiger, Hidden Plot, it will take a collective effort of multiple people with multiple disciplines to piece the story together. Required is a Sherlockian postmortem just to put together the most basic elements of the plot, which is an exhausting and abrasive as it sounds. In both the materials given to the press and in interviews, Hou criticized Hollywood for its reliance on exposition, and does nothing if not rebel against a cycle of explanation plaguing mainstream movies. Until nearly the end, everything having to do with the story is forced to the periphery. On the sidelines. Benched. In a movie light on dialogue to begin with, the motivations of the characters are annoyingly handled as third-act revelations. The Assassin works in reverse.
This much is clear and it’s not much: a nun abducted Princess Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), and what once was an innocent girl now is a master assassin. Political leaders are the primary targets, revenge for the murky backstabbing that divided “the Court” of the region. In a moment of awakened humanity, she can’t complete a kill; the political leader’s son is present. As punishment and to cleanse her of compassion, she’s to target people from her past. Upon arriving, even there she waits, choosing to linger in the shadows, observing, watching, but never acting. Not until her mind is right. A lengthy town meeting discusses politics and familial issues, but in typical Hou fashion, none of that matters. What does matter is revealed as the camera delicately pans up, and up, and up to the ceiling, where Yinniang absorbs the scene below, hidden in the rafters and draped in black. Again, the temporal and spatial realism of a scene is what we’re immersed in, anything but the senseless squabbles of petty lords.
Hou hoped reversing The Assassin’s narrative info dump from front to back would spark the viewer’s imagination, chasing an audacious new form of extreme realism. A minimized plot and truncated action scenes force viewers to, on a purely psychological level, immerse themselves in the drama in a way you or I might not be used to, much less like. A masked rival assassin appears twice, and her identity is never revealed. Who is she? As we’re forced to mentally unravel these mysteries in real time, Hou pleasures your senses with transportive sights and sounds that engulf you entirely.
The Active Realism of The Assassin is a dual method attack—the sumptuous visuals, like the way rose-colored curtains move in sync with the actors on a beautiful, historically vivid set, or the sounds as Hou’s camera stares at a small trickling stream next to a castle, these are what hit you head on and not, paradoxically, the plot or the action, which come entirely from the sides and from behind. Mountains and green pastures and mist, so, so much mist, and castles, and perfectly made period costumes, are what is most immediate. They are what suck you in, and it’s what makes the rigorously detailed world a pleasant, even joyful place to occupy for two hours despite the intentionally acerbic handling of the story. It’s only in the oddly retrospective plot, one assembled in your mind’s eye as the film finishes and the hours afterwards, does the full, impossible painting of The Assassin come into view. As details join together and subtleties are accounted for, only then does the startling emotion emerge and its magnificence beyond question.
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