In the country of China, the “wuxia” genre of storytelling traditionally found in literature is their native equivalent to the European medieval tales of chivalry, the Japanese tradition of the samurai way, or the redemptive nobility of the American western. “Wuxia” translates to “martial hero.” Like the knights, samurais, and cowboys elsewhere, the warriors in wuxia come from humble origins and are driven to right past misdeeds, fight with fairness, and battle oppression. Wuxia crossed over into Hollywood as a film genre with the stunning success of Ang Lee’s Oscar-winning “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” from 2000. Lee’s film ushered a popular trend that included Zhang Yimou’s consecutive films, “Hero” in 2002 and “House of Flying Daggers” in 2004, and made international stars out of the likes of Chow Yun-fat, Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh, and Zhang Ziyi. Even American filmmakers tried wuxia on for size with the animated “Kung Fu Panda” series borrowing from the genre’s style and ideals.
Far more serious than a Jack Black-voiced panda bear, “The Assassin,” directed by Taiwan New Wave director Hou Hsiao-Hsien, is the latest and brightest wuxia film looking to make an international splash. The film was an official Main Competition selection of the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the awards for Best Director and the Soundtrack Award. It is making the rounds of the international film festival circuit, including a recent Highlight selection bow at the 51st Chicago International Film Festival, and will represent Taiwan’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards this coming February. “The Assassin” has begun to trickle in limited release at art house theaters across the country this month.
“The Assassin” takes place during the 9th century Tang Dynasty where neighboring governments and territories compete for control. There is much contention and corruption where alliances are often made to usurp those in power. The influential leaders are always mindful of that rebellious threat and know they stand to make enemies as they climb higher for more power. Operating within this game of hierarchy is the assassin Yinniang, played by model and actress Shu Qi, seen by American audiences in 2002’s “The Transporter.”
The nearly silent killer targets corrupt members of government in the Weibo province. Her sword is commanded by her master Jiaxin (Fang-yi Sheu). She is a nun who has sternly raised Yinniang since she was a girl. Now, at an older age, Yinniang’s disillusionment stirred by Jiaxin’s control is wearing off. She has stopped killing her targets and begun granting mercy. Without that threat of assassination as a balance, the corruption strengthens. To both punish Yinniang and test her resolve and discipline, Jiaxin has assigned her to kill Tian Ji’an, played by Chang Chen, the top military leader of Weibo. What makes it more difficult is that Tian is Yinniang’s own cousin, a man she was once betrothed to marry and still loves.
There is no question the 68-year-old master Hou Hsiao-Hsien has talent. Hou’s politcallty-charged 1989 film “A City of Sadness” was the first Taiwanese film to win the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival. 1993’s “The Puppetmaster” won the Jury Prize for third place at Cannes and his most recent feature, 2005’s “Three Times,” also competed for the Palme d’Or at Cannes like “The Assassin.” Hou has an unquestioned eye for beauty and staging and you can see that in every frame of “The Assassin,” his first foray into the wuxia genre.
The shot variety is exquisite, blending long takes with layers of intimacy, such as entire scenes filmed from behind sheer curtains. Movements of fluidity and stoicism are framed and measured expertly. In this way and true to the wuxia genre, “The Assassin” is picture-perfect. The atmosphere is unmistakably detailed in period decadence and symbolism. The rich costumes, set decoration, fight choreography, makeup, natural settings, and intentional uses of colors draw your eye and brighten the presentation artistically.
Where “The Assassin” lacks and where it will lose audiences is with plot, narrative, and pacing. In wuxia, there is room to build your central hero slowly and this story has a longing-for-love quality of killer whose weathered and guilty heart is softened. There is an unmistakable beauty to that, but the high volume of posturing and portending weighs down “The Assassin” and will test your patience. The aforementioned Cannes-awarded score from composer Lim Giong (his third collaboration with Hou Hsiao-Hsien) is too emphatically slight and minimal to draw you inwards with any absorption. Every wuxia film does not have to be wall-to-wall action scored to soaring heights by Tan Dun with an assist from the strings of Yo-Yo Ma or Itzhak Perlman, but the cinematic sparks are few and far between. It lacks a gravity to draw in your commitment. Without such swells of either action or romance, “The Assassin” feels vacuous and inert despite its gorgeous presentation.
Lesson #1: Do not separate families— Yinniang was unwillingly pulled from her family at the age of 10 into the charge of Jiaxin. Her upbringing changed from one of love and connection to one of cold service and discipline. There is certainly room for discipline in one’s life that can come from influences outside of family, but familial roots are still very important. Yinniang’s separation jaded her mentality and broke down her ability to connect with others. Training to kill in a cunning and cruel fashion replaced that void. Imagine what a different upbringing would have done.
Lesson #2: When killer go against betrayal— Once Yinniang’s target turned to Tian, a former love interest and family member, she begins to question her so-called professional duties. She has witnessed and contended with the corruption and betrayal that she corrects as an equalizer. Now, however, she is considering betraying her own role and stopping the reign of killing. In doing so, she becomes an equal prey instead of the sole predator.
Lesson #3: Finding mercy in your heart— What sets of the calamitous changes in this story is Yinniang finding the capacity for mercy. The violence and ramifications of her actions have added up. By tapping into her emotions, Yinniang begins to see the wrongs she has been a part of. We’re not quite at the level of the painful “look into your heart” scene (sorry about the bad quality video) from “Miller’s Crossing,” but you’ll get the idea of clemency and compassion as Yinniang changes. The difficulty becomes whether those scorned by Yinniang will show her mercy in return.