Two donkeys. That’s the opening shot. You’ve never seen such artistically rendered cinematic donkeys. Shot in black and white, the framing, the geometry, the rhythm of swaying branches, morphing abstract shapes suddenly recognizable; the image absolutely sings.
Then a slow segue to two female figures, standing in the forest shadows, alongside their furry transportation. Taoist martial artists. Assassins. Master (a nun) and her student. Like two exotic lynxes, stalking prey. Stunning.
Then the screen comes to life with color, and one feels instantaneously cracked across the head, as if by dojo stick-warning (pay attention!) from all this cinematic artistry, the degree of which is rarely seen in film these days.
Taiwanese master filmmaker Hsiao-Hsien Hou has made a wuxia film. What’s a wuxia film? Bruce Lee is wuxia. Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” too. But “Kill Bill” is entertainment. “The Assassin” is art. Which is why, as of this writing, it’s been selected by Taiwan as the official entry to the 2016 Academy Awards.
It doesn’t have the flashy, bamboo-hopping and roof-flying acrobatics of the most currently influential, aesthetically fine wuxia film, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” It’s more like a walking meditation through a Tang Dynasty museum, each frame a lush, detailed painting, and yet paradoxically spare and subtle. And altogether arresting.
Set In …
Ninth century China. It came to pass that a child of royalty, a general’s daughter, Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), had been abducted at age 10. She was then raised and instructed by the above-mentioned Taoist master-nun (Sheu Fang-yi) to be a legendary fighter.
By the time she had mastered her art, the Tang emperor’s outlying garrisons had become rebellious. One source of rebellion, Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen), the military governor of the province of Weibo, became a man marked for death.
As a penance for refusing to kill a man because his young son was present, as well as to divest the not-quite-a-master assassin Nie of her remaining human feelings, her nun master sends her to kill this governor Tian Ji’an.
The problem is, he’s Nie Yinniang’s cousin. And she’d been betrothed to marry him.
If she fails, she’ll be shunned by the Order of the Assassins, the “family” who’ve provided her with home and sanctuary during her original years of exile from her true, royal family. Will she really be capable of living the Way of the Sword?
It’s About the Beauty
Actress Shu Qi is deeply charismatic, and makes the conflict between her lingering vulnerability to human emotion and the demands of the merciless, unswayable emotional state of her profession—very tangible.
“Assassin” has politics, military planning, power plays, and personalities, and is thus complex on one level; but the complexity is balanced by the sparseness, and the meditative pace is rejuvenating. The soundtrack consists largely of birdsong and drumbeat. And the wind.
More impressions: wooden pagodas, moss-roofed abodes that blend with the landscape, rock gardens, glowing candles, an ancient story of a bluebird that refused to sing until placed before a mirror, as bluebirds only sing to their own kind. An otherworldly tableau of a woman in silk strumming a zither, sounding curiously musically current. A fight in a white birch tree forest between two female warriors—primal, like wild birds of prey, ending only when Nie splits the golden face-mask of her opponent with one dagger swipe that bespeaks a supernormal level of accuracy, leaving her opponent unscathed.
The Ultimate Fight
The challenge of relinquishing love and human emotion for complete dedication to transcending human feelings (“qing,” in Chinese) and moving toward an Arhat (pre-Buddha) state is the basis of all serious spiritual paths. Nie’s choice of deciding life or death for the man she once loved reflects the archetype of the sacrifice of qing—she’s not ready.
In the case of Buddhists, this is in preparation to attain true compassion (“cibei” as opposed to qing), necessary for the drive to save all sentient beings. But these are Taoists. For the Taoists, devotion to truth was all-encompassing, and so the notion of a “righteous assassin,” who ends evil deeds in service of the truth, is, to my way of thinking—plausible.
This theme can also be found in modern literature: “The Gray Man” series features Court Gentry, a CIA-trained assassin and mercenary who only takes “righteous” kills to end the bad deeds of bad people. He’s similarly emotionally shut down, but more due to years of plying a dark trade and creeping PTSD—no quest for enlightenment there. Everything was enlightenment-oriented in the Tang Dynasty.
There are a lot of deep themes here. Go there to meditate and contemplate. Don’t go to be entertained. If you focus on meditation, you’ll be royally entertained nonetheless. If you go expecting “Kung Pow!” chop-socky entertainment, you may doze off.
But you won’t necessarily snore—as mentioned, while the pace moves like slow waters running deep, the visuals alone are arresting, even if you’re not crazy for that sort of thing. But the art-house crowd will be over the moon.
Director: Hsiao-Hsien Hou
Starring: Shu Qi, Chang Chen
Running Time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
Release Date: Aug. 27
4 stars out of 5