The Assassin (2015)
Director: Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin is an exhibition of visual splendor. With a simple premise and few turning points, the film conveys atmosphere more than it does plot. Its carefully composed shots and crisply edited sound makes it a striking film experience. The story takes place in seventh century China and tells of a skillful female assassin who returns to her home village with a mission to kill her cousin: the village’s leader and the man to whom she was betrothed many years ago. Typical of Chinese martial arts movies, the action sequences are elaborately choreographed and shot in slow motion. However, Hsiao-Hsien distinguishes his work by setting such action in the midst of immense natural scenery which overshadows the fights and shifts our gaze to the beauty of nature. One of the most memorable of such sequences is the stand-off fight between the assassin and her sister in a sea of white trees. In addition, the action sequences are brief and end abruptly whether within the frame as characters stop fighting and walk away or intentionally by a cut to the next scene. For example, one of the assassin’s earliest missions is rapidly edited and takes only a few seconds on-screen, on the other hand, another scene where a servant prepares a bath for the assassin is shot in real time and is over a minute long. Such manner of directing action downgrades the importance of physical battles by drowning them in natural settings or reducing their on-screen duration. Hsiao-Hsien seems to be completely enamored with nature that not only is most of his film set within its embrace but he also includes several shots of mountains, fields of wheat, and waterfalls as serene interludes, one of which is a tracking shot of flying birds in the sky.
The film’s key stylistic element is the slow moving camera. Hsiao-Hsien shoots his scenes at a leisurely pace as the camera gradually moves from one side of a room to another, from one face to another, at times even replacing editing where a cut would be appropriate. This deliberate movement evokes a feeling; the audience feels that the camera is no longer grounded at set points but rather floating between and around the characters. Another curious technique used is filming from behind veils and translucent curtains. In one of the film’s longer scenes, the camera is positioned behind a curtain and watches as a couple converses together. The dialogue is long and almost tedious to listen to, however the unique camera position away yet aware of the couple conveys a certain feeling of distance. The couple end up sharing an emotional moment and this moment is wrapped with a dancing curtain that we can see in the foreground, one that partially veils our vision and distances us from the couple, giving them privacy at this sensitive time. Additional elements such as shot composition and sound editing make the film an immersive aesthetic experience. Besides the stately presence of nature, the saturated colors of the film give it a vibrant look. But it’s not only color which makes Hsiao-Hsien’s shots beautiful, components such as light add to the aesthetic value of the film. The shots almost always include a source of natural light, be it sunshine or candlelight. Furthermore, several scenes are beautified by the flowing movement of permeating steam or smoke. In fact, smoke becomes a character in one of the film’s dramatic scenes. The embedment of frames within frames also adds visual depth to many shots.
As for the sound of the film, the score is usually faded in the background with the diegetic sounds of horse hooves and swords more pronounced and louder. What is most articulated is the sound of fights as the audience can clearly hear the crispy slice of swords and their motion in the air. Nonetheless, all sound falls silent at several points in the film. Silence is used as a means of emotional expression by the two main characters. The assassin’s face is covered as she cries silently and her cousin rages in a council meeting but only stands up and throws a book on the floor without uttering a sound; no sobs or yells.
All these elements of cinematography, editing, and sound bestow a distinct aesthetic feel to Hsiao-Hsien’s vision and it is in the very end of his film when the assassin fails her mission and chooses not to kill her cousin that a message surfaces and unites form with content. The assassin’s master – standing at the top of a mountain and surrounded by white mist – reproaches her apprentice, “Your skills are matchless but your mind is hostage to human sentiment.” Only then do the overwhelming presence of nature, the degradation of action to fleeting fights, and the unusual staging of emotional scenes all come together and make sense to the audience. Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin is a tale of human nature and instinct that guides us to see what runs in our blood: understanding, forgiveness, love.
Hou Hsiao-Hsien won the Best Director award for his film at Cannes Film Festival in 2015.