When you decide to make a movie about a well-known tale, then you have to decide how to tell it. People already know how it will end or should end. Taiwanese director Hsiao-Hsien Hou has taken a Tang dynasty short story about a woman warrior and made a contemplative costume drama with brief flashes of martial arts. The movie, “The Assassin” is wonderfully photographed by cinematographer Ping Bin Lee (“In the Mood for Love”). The movie won Hou Best Director at Cannes Film Festival as well as the Cannes Soundtrack award for Giong Lim. “The Assassin” opened last weekend at the Pasadena Playhouse 7 and will open in Monterey Park on Oct. 23.
The supertitles before the prologue tell you the political situation. The Tang dynasty is in decline. During the 8th century, “the imperial court seeks to protect itself by establishing garrisons at the frontiers of its empire.” Yet the frontiers aren’t easy to govern. “One century later, the militarized provinces waver in their loyalty to the Court. Some move to distance themselves from the Emperor’s control. At that time, Weibo asserts itself as the strongest of those provinces.”
The first thing we see are two donkeys. These animals are for the white-robed nun, Princess Jiaxin (Fang-Yi Sheu) and her black-clad protege Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi). They watch for a man who poisoned his own father and killed his brother. “His guilt condemns him,” the nun declares, making herself judge and jury as they watch a retinue of men on horses. The killing by Nie Yinniang is quick.
Yinniang isn’t always so successful. She fails has in her next mission. The target was with his son and she was too tenderhearted to kill the man. The nun wasn’t there. Jiaxin replies that next time, “First kill the one he loves, then kill the man himself.” The princess continues, “You have mastered the sword, but your heart lacks resolve.” For the assassin’s next mission, the princess tells her, “Kill your cousin, Tian Ji’an.”
Tian Ji’an is the governor of Weibo and had originally been betrothed to Yinniang. Yinniang has feelings for Tian Ji’an, but after she was sent away and he married another woman.
The plot moves slowly between the great expanses of scenic Chinese mountains and plains. Sometimes instead of music, the soundtrack only features the chirping of birds and birds are a motif here. For the first assassination, the nun instructed to kill the man expertly “as if he were a bird in flight.” In another place, the movie cuts to Yinniang’s mother who plays the Chinese zither and recites the legend about the Kophen’s bluebird who for three years did not sing until the queen commented that bluebirds sing only for their own kind. When a mirror was placed before the bird, it sang sadly a beautiful song and then died.
By going to Weibo, Yinniang is forced to see what might have been if she had married Tian Ji’an. He has children by his first wife (Yun Zhou). Yinniang makes it clear to Ji’an that she is there and what her mission is by watching his children and spying on him and his family. They meet in one-to-one combat where she refrains from killing him.
Besides his wife, Ji’an also has a consort, dancer Huji (Nikki Hsin-Ying Hsieh), who is pregnant. Someone uses the Chinese equivalent of voodoo in a murder attempt on Huji after a particularly flirtatious dance Ji’an but it is Yinniang who saves her. Similar methods were used to kill the previous lord and suspicions point to Jiaxin. Yet with Huji, Ji’an’s suspicion turns toward Lady Ji’an.
Yinniang’s father is sent away from Weibo. When he and his retinue finally do make their way, it is through a dangerously isolated area where assassins set upon him. The assassin, his daughter, is there to save him. As in the 2000 Ang Lee film, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” student and teacher will meet and battle (or at least I’m guessing that the woman behind the golden mask is Jiaxin), but there will be substantially less high-flying, acrobatic wire-work wushu in “The Assassin.”
Historically, Weibo 魏博 was an area that is now part of the modern Hebei. During the Tang Dynasty, it was ruled by the Weibo Army under Tian Chengsi and under the Tian family, Weibo was one of the Hebei garrisons that revolted. So ultimately, we know that the endeavor to bring a lasting peace between Weibo and the Imperial court failed. The matter of the Imperial Court and its wavering influence over Weibo isn’t settled by the end of the movie and we leave the Weibo court as Ji’an listens to advisors who suggest distracting the Imperials troops with wine and food while trying to make an alliance with the Wang forces.
For her part, Yinniang tells the nun Jiaxin that, “Were Tian Ji’an to die while his sons were still young, Weibo would fall into chaos, so I chose not to kill him.”
“The way of the sword is pitiless,” the nun replies. “Saintly virtues play no part in it. Your skills are matchless but your mind is hostage to human sentiments.”
In “The Assassin,” the long intervals between intrigue and action, usually with awe-inspiring natural scenes. You could easily re-edit this to make a travel advertisement for the unspoiled China. The distance between places and the expanse that was and is China is emphasized and mirrors the isolation of Yinniang on her journey to find her true calling. “The Assassin” is in Chinese with English subtitles. As an additional aid, there’s a graph of all the relationships in the main characters in the movie on this web page at the bottom of the article (In Japanese with English translations provided).