“She wanted me to see her before she took my life”
Without a doubt one of the most gorgeous films of 2015, Hsiao-Hsien Hou‘s 刺客聶隱娘 [Nie yin niang] [The Assassin] is also high on the list for most convoluted. I still have little clue about what happened throughout the story—based on a late ninth century short text by Xing Pei—besides the fact that the titular assassin (Qi Shu‘s Nie Yinniang) was tasked with killing her cousin Tian Ji’an (Chen Chang). Everything else on the periphery of that central plot deals with family squabbles, infidelity, black magic, and the politics of possible war behind the Tang Court and Weibo province. These additional bits of drama push and pull Yinniang between her soul’s intrinsic compassion and the never-question-orders attitude of the woman who raised/trained her (Fang-yi Sheu‘s Princess Jiaxin).
The whole reason she’s in Weibo is because she couldn’t murder a corrupt government official with his young son in his arms—think The Bourne Identity. Jiaxin knows her student has unparalleled skills, but this lack of emotionless resolve has her worrying Yinniang may not be as ready to serve as originally thought. This is why Tian Ji’an is the perfect candidate to prove her dedication: he was once her betrothed beyond also being her cousin. With all the political strife happening, the heir to the Weibo governor’s seat was married to Lady Tian (Yun Zhou) instead. Yinniang was only ten, but the life lain before her was stolen away. So her father Nie Feng (Dahong Ni) and mother (Mei Yong) let Jiaxin give her a new one.
Let’s just say that even if Yinniang hadn’t returned to murder her hometown’s leader, this reunion was always going to be a bit difficult. There’s a lot of guilt going around as well as anger—enough so that you’d assume the whole film would keep its star as the focal point throughout. Hou isn’t interested in telling a front-to-back wuxia story where the fighting becomes plot, though. He’d rather the violence punctuate a more realist tale of life during the Tang Dynasty and all its disparate craziness. While I applaud the choice, it unfortunately allows many revelations to be revealed with little fanfare and a lot of confusion. It doesn’t help that the first thirty minutes is so exposition-heavy that I was lost before the action could even begin.
Characters are introduced with a familiarity I couldn’t wrap my head around. It took me almost the entire run-time before I realized Lady Tian was Tian Ji’an’s wife since he spent so much time with his concubine Huji (Nikki Hsin-Ying Hsieh). My disorientation was exacerbated by Lady Tian’s regal calm when explaining the past to Yinniang so that despite Yun Zhou’s obvious youthful beauty, I assumed she was playing Tian Ji’an’s mother. I’m going to guess this hang-up was purely due to my own lack of attention somehow, but I’m not so sure about the relevance of Huji’s pregnancy or the elderly wizard making voodoo paper dolls at his desk. That whole subplot seemed completely unnecessary to me, doing nothing but keeping Yinniang off screen.
I know these tiny details play larger roles in Yinniang’s reconciliation between family and duty, but at the time they merely felt like distractions. The same goes with Tien Xing (Zhen Yu Lei) and his apparent fear mongering leading to exile, stewarded by Nie Feng who serves as the governor’s provost. The sequence is crucial to supplying Yinniang a venue to choose her path, but she plays such a small role due to her expert proficiency as a martial arts master that you need to wonder why the film wasn’t called Weibo instead of The Assassin. In the grand scheme of things, Yinniang is no more important than Tian Ji’an, Nie Feng, or Jiaxin. She is just one more cog inside a trying time of potential war.
Despite my constantly feeling at arm’s length with the story, I couldn’t stop myself from being enveloped by Hou and cinematographer Ping Bin Lee‘s sumptuous composition. So much of the film is shot from a huge distance in order to let mountains dwarf characters and fog to roll in. One of the fight scenes is almost entirely filmed from across a creek with trees shrouding most of the swordplay to make us into a voyeur as history unfolds. And when they do allow themselves a more intimate gaze, it too is masked. At first watching events through a translucent silk curtain can be annoying, but it soon proves an amazing aesthetic choice with fabric layers losing opacity until Yinniang’s silhouette becomes unobstructed between two hemmed frames.
The black magic stuff is cool too if under-utilized to the point of being taken aback by its inclusion at all. A smoke cloud billows out of nowhere to surround a character in pain and lend a beautiful supernatural element to an otherwise straightforward period piece of family drama. The action sequences have a similar feel in that they are exciting to behold if not underwhelming in their brevity. I’m torn about this because I love the decision not to prolong fights simply because audiences demand to be entertained. If Yinniang is as good as she’s purported to be, she shouldn’t have a problem dispatching those in her way and toying with those who are not. Qi Shu is magnificent in the task with a stoic face hardly working up a sweat.
Her only visibly shaken moments arrive when emotions are high and psychological hardships push physical ones aside. It’s a fantastic way to approach the story—supplying an assassin unlike most who thinks and feels when she knows she shouldn’t. And it’s because I like the bones of the story so much that I have to believe my confusion on a micro level stem from a cultural disparity. Perhaps I was projecting western expectations on an obviously eastern-based literary adaptation. What seemed inconsequential to me might be the most important details to others and for that I give The Assassin the benefit of the doubt. If even half my points of contention were excised to deliver a stunning visual short, I’d probably believe it one of the years best.