AKA: The Lady From Tang
Director: Hou Hsiao-hsien
Writer: Zhong Acheng, Hou Hsiao Hsien
Cast: Shu Qi, Chang Chen, Satoshi Tsumabuki, Nikki Hsieh Hsin Ying, Chang Shao Huai, Zuo Xiao Qing, Ethan Ruan Jing Tian, Jiang Wen, Xu Fan, Zhou Yun
Runing Time: 105 min.
By Kyle Warner
Hou Hsiao-hsien won Best Director at 2015’s Cannes Film Festival for his exquisitely filmed Tang Dynasty drama The Assassin. Since that time, the conversation about The Assassin has split between two competing lines of thought, one calling the film a masterpiece and the other calling it a pretty looking bore. My own opinion of the film falls somewhere between those two polar opposites: it’s a special film but it is slow. If you have the patience, The Assassin rewards you with a quiet and often beautiful film experience. However, those looking for the typical martial arts action movie should look elsewhere.
Set in 9th Century China, the film follows the difficult life of the assassin Yinniang (Shu Qi). When faced with killing a father while he cradles his son, Yinniang walks away from the planned assassination, much to chagrin of her master. Though her skills are unmatched, Yinniang still has too much human compassion for a woman in her profession. In order to break Yinniang and mold her into a pitiless killer, her master sends Yinniang to kill the man she was arranged to marry in her youth, her cousin Lord Tian (Chang Chen). In the many years since Yinniang and Tian have been apart, the young Lord has risen to power and amassed the largest army in North China. Not only will his death be a personal one for Yinniang, it will also reshape the political landscape of the entire country.
When Yinniang returns to rejoin the family she’s not seen since her youth, she’s welcomed back with love. They don’t know her secret intentions. Shu Qi doesn’t speak often and rarely shows emotion. She brings the character of Yinniang to life through her actions and choices. Yinniang is neither hero nor villain. She stalks Lord Tian in the dark but you can sense her conflicted feelings as she draws out the confrontation as long as possible.
Though the main character is cold and keeps us distanced, the film has unexpected warmth to it, thanks in large part to its natural beauty. This is a gorgeous looking film. I’d almost say it’s worth seeing for the cinematography alone. Every shot breathes with life. Beautiful silk curtains flow in the background, smoke snakes across the screen, colorful fauna dances in the breeze. Heightened sounds of the environment act as the film’s primary score, making the scenes peaceful and also strangely haunting. Hou doesn’t move his camera often, preferring stillness while the world moves through his frame. There’s nothing fancy going on, just a practiced patience of a filmmaker that sees the world differently than most of us.
I haven’t worked through the entirety of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s filmography but I’ve seen enough to get an idea of what to expect from the director. Hou makes quiet, introspective films with subtle style. Commonly regarded as one of the world’s best living directors, Hou demands a certain level of patience from his viewers. His appeal may not go far beyond the art-house crowd in the West. The Assassin, like much of the rest of his work, is a slow-burn. And while I liked the film, I must admit that even I wanted Hou to pick up the pace from time to time. It’s not a movie for everybody – and that’s okay, it was never meant to be. For while Hou has stepped into the more marketable realm of martial arts cinema, The Assassin has much more in common with the director’s earlier work than anything you’ve seen martial artists Donnie Yen or Jet Li star in recently.
Hou uses the martial arts sequences like a knife to cut through the quiet drama. Shot fast, up close, and edited in a flurry of cuts, the fights seem to be intentionally at odds with the rest of the film. Though wirework is occasionally used to help the performers with a high jump here and there, the action is mostly well-grounded in reality. I liked the way they chose to depict Yinniang’s skills with a blade. Shu Qi isn’t nearly as skilled in martial arts as some of her contemporaries, but her character is never put in the position of showing off. She’s lethal like a cobra poised to strike, completely lacking in flair or showmanship. When three men charge at her with swords, Yinniang makes a few dodges and dispatches them all with quick slashes from her curved knife. Like Hou’s visual style, the fights aren’t fancy, they’re efficient and restrained.
Though the film would be incomplete without the martial arts, The Assassin is more of a historical drama than anything else. Those coming expecting an action film will no doubt be disappointed. It has more in common with Shakespeare than Jackie Chan. Though the film moves at a slow pace, it drew me in over time. It’s beautiful to behold, yes, but there’s something more going on in Hou’s creation. The Assassin has a dream-like quality to it; the film transports you somewhere beyond your screen in a way that only true cinema is capable of. Not everyone will feel the same, but I found the film to be very special indeed.
Kyle Warner’s Rating: 8/10