My first day at TIFF got off to a rocky start when I lost my phone at the airport, spent all afternoon trying to find a replacement phone in Canada and then sat through Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin, which has just been chosen as Taiwan’s entry for this year’s Oscars. I was not sure I was in the right frame of mind to watch what I knew, based on Hou’s other work (Flowers of Shanghai, A City of Sadness), would be a slow, languorous movie; indeed, The Assassin is a challenging movie, and I was tempted to take a nap about halfway through. There’s a lot of contemplative staring in The Assassin—this isn’t a movie you can just pop in to see after work one evening, you have to be proper psyched to spend an entire scene staring at a man sitting quietly.
Set toward the end of the Tang Dynasty in China, The Assassin is less classic wuxia film and more a slice of dynastic Chinese life. A helpful epigraph sets the scene, with the Tang in decline and feudal lords challenging their centrist power. One such lord is Tian J’ian (Chen Chang), governor of the Weibo province. He has a lot of martial power backing him, but his advisors are torn on their course of action against the weakening Tang. There’s a long scene of arguing, someone is banished, Tian has a wife and a mistress and they don’t like each other, a woman fills a bathtub, we spend some time staring at a donkey. Amidst all the mundanity—the power plays and manipulations of Tian’s court are definitely meant to seem mundane—a woman dressed in black materializes, engaging in brief, brutal fights.
Our introduction to the titular assassin, Yinniang (Qi Shu), comes at the top of the film, in sharply contrasted black and white. She’s immediately a huge physical threat, as she kills a man with a single swipe from a small knife. She’s like the Black Widow x1000. But then the film shifts to color and we pick up with life in Tian’s court. (Sidebar: The technical notes for the film indicate that with the exception of the prologue, the film is shot in a 1.85x1 aspect ratio, which is one of the standard “Super 35” formats for 35mm film. But my screening was projected at a 4x3 ratio, aka, the ratio of pre-flat screen TVs. So it looked like we were watching an old TV show on Netflix, and I think that’s a fault of the projection, but fair warning there’s a chance The Assassin may look hilariously dated when you see it.)
The wuxia elements of The Assassin are used minimally, but are effective when Yinniang is engaged in fighting. And there’s one scene where she’s not even physically present that is one of the most tense segments of the film, and also kind of funny like one of those Ninja convention jokes. It’s everything around the fight scenes that makes for dense, challenging viewing. Yinniang was once betrothed to Tian, but he—or rather, his father—broke their engagement and she ended up being raised by an exiled Princess-Nun, who turned her into Super Ninja. After failing to assassinate a target because his son was present, the Princess-Nun sends Yinniang after Tian, and as she prowls his castle she gets a glimpse of what her life could have been. The contrast between the way the women of Tian’s court are treated and the way more common folk receive Yinniang is stark—she has far more freedom and respect.
The production is incredibly lush, and the score by Giong Lim is stellar. Hou’s direction is technically masterful, with plenty of his signature long takes and slow pans, and some truly striking natural imagery that would make Terrence Malick weep. The Assassin is undoubtedly beautiful, and like Malick’s work, it’s less about whether or not you like it and more about how you react to it. And how you react to it depends entirely on your tolerance of long shots of goats. I can’t guarantee everyone will like this movie—I’m not sure I do—but I can guarantee you will have FEELINGS after seeing it.