The Assassin ★★★★

"Your skills are matchless, but your mind is hostage to human sentiments."

Definitely a daring and difficult endeavor, regardless of the value you think is contained within (this is my first Hao Hsiao-Hsien, but from what I understand that's basically his M.O.). The Assassin is a minimalist, impressionist wuxia, which is probably not what most people want from the genre (not to mention that it's about an assassin who essentially refuses to be an action hero), and even those who bought their ticket just for the highly composed visual aesthetic might be put off by how slow and ultimately uneventful the film is (I'll get to why that's the whole point later).

If there's anyone out there that still puts any stock in the old (and useless) dichotomy of style vs. substance, I won't be the strongest advocate of this film's substance, but I love the way Hong Kong cinema uses historical conflicts to extrapolate conflicts in its national identity from the nation at large onto individual bodies. But while The Assassin is certainly operating on that level (the assassin of the title is on a mission to kill corrupt government officials, symbols of the nation's fragmented identity; the story is set in a China beset by regional disputes), I'm most interested in it as an exercise in visual style and cinematic technique.

The Assassin is characterized by an extreme, almost austere control of the images on screen. Most of its scenes are constructed as 1–3 shots between 30 seconds and a minute in length, and these scenes are framed with small, slow camera movements (primarily tilts and pans). This creates stillness during most of the dramatic scenes, which then is subsequently interrupted by the sudden fragmentation of the action scenes. These few battles are presented in scenes that contain 10–15 shots—still low by Hollywood standards, but strikingly contrasted with the surrounding editorial tranquility.

This is where I want to come back to the idea that the film is ultimately uneventful. Shu Qi's Yinniang, the assassin of the film, is stuck. As the quote above suggests, her sympathy for the people she must murder prevents her from doing her duties as a hired killer. The central question of the film is whether she will decide to kill her target, Lord Tian Ji'an (her cousin and ex-fiancé), or reject this call to action. This ethical indecision is directly manifested in the visual style: the battle scenes are purposefully cut to hide the action, even to the point of using jump cuts to basically skip past bits of the attackers' blows. The film is its style: a tale a stillness and fragmented hesitation, culminating in the assassin's final decision.

Hao Hsiao-Hsien's Ashes of Time?

2015: U.S. (top 15) | Global (top 10)
Hong Kong (& Taiwan & China) | Girl Power

[EDIT] From a comment I left on Connor Denney's review, something I want to keep in mind for when I inevitably rewatch this: Speaking of characters being a product of their environment, I also noticed the shots of nature—how could you not with the way the sound of the wind overwhelms the image—and then how these loud/chaotic but living/moving external spaces are contrasted with the quiet/serene but deathly/stagnant internal spaces, and how that visualizes the oppression Yinniang feels from the politics of the family and the aristocracy.

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