Directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Taiwan | 104 minutes | North American Premiere
SUN | SEP 13 9:00 PM | Scotiabank Theatre Scotiabank 1 | SUBTITLED
TUE | SEP 15 5:00 PM | The Bloor Hot Docs Cinema | SUBTITLED
It seems customary for every prominent Asian filmmaker to submit an entry to the wuxia-pian genre. The conventions of the genre are simple: historical period pieces featuring martial arts heroes, courtly intrigue and suspense. Wong Kar-Wai (Ashes of Time), Zhang Yimou (Hero), Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) are just some of the Asian masters who have produced films with greater or lesser degrees of success within the genre’s conventions.
Regardless, it seems almost perverse that Taiwanese auteur, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, a filmmaker who favors long-take filmmaking (sometimes producing films comprised of only a dozen or so exquisitely choreographed shots) would attempt a martial arts film. Indeed, how would a filmmaker known above all for stasis, temps mort and dedramatization attempt to relay the kinetic and visceral pleasures of a martial arts film? The answer: amazingly well in fact. For his efforts, Hou Hsiao-Hsien won the prestigious award for Best Director at Cannes. In The Assassin (2015), Hou enlists his characteristic strategies of elliptical narration, off-screen staging (entire fights occur out of frame or displaced to the margins) and longish if not always long-take filmmaking.
The film is loosely based on a short story set in the late Tang dynasty, a time when China was torn apart by militarized provinces warring amongst each other. In the film’s titular role Chinese actress Shu Qi delivers a powerful, internalized performance as Yinniang an assassin trained by the central government. The character, trained from the age of ten by an ethereal mysterious nun to become an expert martial artist, is sent to the province of her birth, Weibo, to assassinate its governor, Tian Jian (Chang Chen). But what makes this film truly worth seeing is the gorgeous splendor of its sets and costumes. Hou was adamant about presenting the most exact period detail in architecture and the interior design of the film’s spaces. As always, the cinematography is precise and exuberantly crafted. The film’s dramatic interior scenes are shot through a gorgeously dense mise-en-scène as Hou films through diaphanous silk curtains lit by golden candlelight.
The Assasin is not, however Hou’s best film. He never seems truly comfortable staging the fight scenes, never does quite make them his own. As usual for Hou, moments of high drama and combat are staged far back near the furthest plane. One particular fight scene is almost entirely obliterated by a dense thicket of tree branches in the foreground. And while the director retains the rhythm of the “pause/burst/pause” structure of fighting scenes, more is relayed through the film’s thunderous sound design than exact framing or virtuosic editing. Despite these drawbacks the film is a must see for cinephiles at TIFF 15.