Renowned Director Breaks The Mold, With An 'Assassin' No One Saw Coming
The title character of The Assassin is a mysterious, silent woman draped in black, calm and implacable — even while slitting an unlucky warlord's throat.
The film, set in 9th-century China, is the latest from one of the great directors of world cinema, a man who just came to the U.S. for the first time in 20 years: Hou Hsiao-Hsien. Earlier this year, his film won the top directing prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
But the film isn't typical for Hou, who's known best for telling intimate stories about ordinary people. The Assassin, on the other hand, is inspired by the kind of storytelling that first gained popularity more than a millennium ago.
"It's a world of spies and assassins and gamblers and prostitutes and wandering monks and jugglers — it's all the people who didn't fit in," says Grady Hendrix, co-founder of the New York Asian Film Festival.
The film is set during the twilight of the Tang dynasty, which lasted until the turn of the 10th century. Amid a rigid society, regional warlords were rebelling against an imperial government that had overseen centuries of peace, stability, refinement and culture.
"All the beautiful homes and silks and porcelains and poetry and this sort of mannered court behavior, it's all going to be dead, it's all going to be ashes in the next 50 to 80 years," explains Hendrix.
Hou wanted to evoke the look of classical Chinese paintings and their times. So he flew his cast and crew to desolate parts of mainland China. They shot on stone mountains layered with clouds, and in silver birch forests unsullied by developers or tourists.
"When you look at those kinds of images, you never knew something could look like that," Hou says. "You think these classical landscape paintings of mountains and rivers must be imaginary, but no — they're actually realistic."
Which makes sense for a director whose global reputation is rooted in realism. In many of his films, he has focused on Taiwan, on normal people facing challenging circumstances. City of Sadness, for instance, followed one family enduring the brutal Chinese occupation of Taiwan, under which thousands of people died. That movie won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1989.
The Assassin, however, is a major departure. It draws on fantasy, legend and mythology — though Hou Hsiao-Hsien was completely uninterested in making some sort of crass, commercial martial arts movie.
"I don't want to make those kinds of movies," Hou says. "I wanted to set this film in realism" — meaning meticulously researched historical details and understated fight scenes. The 68-year-old director says he resisted anything over-the-top or magical, like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
"In a discussion with my team of young fight choreographers, I made a rule never to leave the ground. You don't want to be like Spider-Man swinging around," he says. "These are not long fighting sequences. The act of assassination is incredibly fast. The assassin uses a short sword. You have to come up really close, do it and get out."
"No one ever thought that Hou Hsiao-Hsien would be making an action movie — and granted, it's his version of an action movie (some would say an inaction movie) — but no one thought that he would be doing this, ever," Grady Hendrix says. "His movies have this very unhurried feel. The scenes are very long. The camera moves, but there are not very many edits in the scenes."
The effect, says Hendrix, is a sense of natural flow and rhythm. Hou likes to position the actors in front of his camera and then just let scenes unfold.
"What's rather odd is, I don't say 'action' or 'cut.' I want it to be an immersive experience for the actors," Hou says.
The actors are not exactly what you might expect from an artsy Asian film hailed by critics around the world as a masterpiece. Hendrix points to the woman who plays the stoic assassin with terrifying poise and gravitas.
"The lead actress, Shu Qi, really, it's astonishing to see her in this, because Shu Qi is a Taiwanese actress who started off in the '90s basically making softcore porn," Hendrix says. "And she really clawed her way out of that through sheer ambition, and then she started being in action movies, and then she started being in sort of more art house movies."
Seeing her in a film by Hou Hsiao-Hsien is a bit like seeing Kim Kardashian in a Jane Campion movie.
Hendrix says the film also dramatically upends the conventions of stories about lone swordsmen — or swordswomen — roaming the medieval Chinese countryside, abiding by a strict code of honor.
"If this movie is about anything, it's about someone who's been born and trained to kill, who's been disappointed in life, who has every reason to take revenge on everyone around her and murder them."
It's about developing mercy.
"And developing a feeling for justice, not just for the rich, not just for the intrigues of the court and not just for high officials or her master, but a concept of justice that extends to peasants and people who are brought in to do stupid things like polish mirrors and repair robes — that those people are as deserving of justice and mercy as those whose orders she follows."
In The Assassin, Hou Hsiao-Hsien takes a quiet but radically revisionist look at an ancient genre.
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