'The Assassin': Cannes Review

Hou Hsiao-Hsien brings a pure, idiosyncratic vision to the martial arts genre 

Shu Qi plays a mysterious female assassin whose heart gets in the way in Hou Hsiao-Hsien's first martial arts film.

In his first directing effort since the 2007 Juliette Binoche vehicle Flight of the Red Balloon, art film master Hou Hsiao-Hsien confronts Taiwanese and Chinese myth, landscape and genre head-on. The Assassin (Nie Yinniang) is his first martial arts film and, at $15 million, his largest-budgeted project to date. As might be expected by those familiar with his work, this is an idiosyncratic, even personal view of the genre. Its bursts of lightning-fast swordplay interrupt long, still stretches of misty moonlit landscapes and follow a pure literary style more than current genre expectations. Detailed period costumes and art direction make it extraordinarily beautiful to watch, but its refinement may weigh against it for fans hungering after spectacular kung fu. The plot and characters are also hard to follow, and although this is par for the genre, game audiences will have to contend with substantial narrative ambiguity to reap the riches of an authentically poetic costumer. Still, the film can expect a warm welcome from art film fans. It has been picked up for the U.S. by Well Go. 

The story opens in 9th century China where the Imperial Court and the powerful Weibo military province co-exist in an uneasy truce. The opening sequence introduces self-possessed protag Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi) and the “princess-nun” Jiaxin (Sheu Fang-yi) to whom she has been entrusted for her education. Though her parents back at the Weibo court may not know it, this consists in turning her into a killing machine of matchless skill, which she demonstrates in the pre-credit sequence. Striking with the speed of a cobra, she probably takes less than three seconds of screen time to slit the throat of a man on horseback. This is the first indication that Hou is deliberately out of the race to create longer, ever-more-astonishing and exciting aerial battles on wires; instead the film follows a formal logic of its own, where fight scenes are brief and to-the-point.

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One surprise is that Hou is not shooting in anything resembling widescreen, but a modest, nearly square format that limits the number of actors who can fit into the frame. It’s a gamble that pays off in extra vertical space, which lets him exploit soulful natural locations and create images that pleasurably recall Chinese period paintings. The second shock is that exceptional D.P. Mark Lee Ping Bin is shooting in deep black and white, which is wisely dropped for bright color beginning with the next scene.

As a hitwoman Yinniang has one weakness, which is a soft heart that often blocks her from carrying out her deadly assignments. Stumbling onto a governor cuddling his baby, she backs down from the kill. (It’s an interesting gender switch that points to the contradictions inherent in being a female warrior.) The nun, her master, is more than a little disappointed, and sends her home to murder the ruler Lord Tian (Chang Chen), to whom she was once betrothed. In Weibo, he’s making merry with his wife, concubines and small children, but the political outlook is not so good. Another stressful factor is that he’s receiving regular visits from a beautiful dark assassin, who is soon identified as Yinniang.

Revealed shot by shot, the royal court is a visual extravagance of Oriental fantasies illuminated by brightly colored silk robes and patterned, transparent curtains. The camera barely moves. There is plenty of sensual atmosphere in these luscious scenes, but the actors, locked in formal poses, keep their emotional distance. So when Lord Tian throws a tantrum and exiles a young councilor, no one gets worked up over it. This is one of the film’s hard-to-understand plot points, which eventually turns into an ambush in a birch woods, with Yinniang arriving for another short fight.

More confusion arises back at court, where one of Lord Tian’s favorites (Hsieh Hsin-ying) is hiding her pregnancy. A white-bearded sorcerer gets wind of this and initiates the film’s single and much appreciated supernatural moment. But as in the action scenes, Hou seems in a hurry to undercut the excitement (one can imagine what Tsui Hark would have done with a smouldering concubine.)

Shu Qi and Chang are both Taiwanese-born stars and co-starred together in Hou’s 2005 three-part love story, Three Times. Here their roles are much more stylized, and the minimal dialogue often gives them an air of posing more than actually acting. Yet both young actors have the gravitas needed for their formal roles and costumes, and acquit themselves like ballet dancers in their mutual sword fights, one of which takes place on a roof at night.

Among the film’s superlative tech work, major credit goes to production and costume designer Hwarng Wern-ying and composer Lim Giong for a highly original use of music, drumbeats and other effects to convey an unsettling modern mood.

Production companies: Spot Films, Central Motion Picture Organization, Sil-Metropole
Shu Qi, Chang Chen, Tsumabuki Satoshi, Zhou Yun, Juan Ching-tian,Hsieh Hsin-ying, Sheu Fang-yi
Director: Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Screenwriters: Chu Tien-wen, Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Producers: Wen-Ying Huang, Chen Yiqi, Stephen Lam, Stephen Shin
Director of photography: Mark Lee Ping Bin
Production and costume designer: Hwarng Wern-ying

Editors: Liao Ching-sung, Pauline Huang Chih-chia
Music: Lim Giong
Wild Bunch

No rating, 120 minutes