Based on a classical Chinese short story from the Tang Period – Pei Xing’s “Nie Yinniang” – The Assassin is one of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s most mysterious and mercurial works. Like Wong Kar-Wai, Hou has turned to the wuxia or historical martial arts film as a way of approaching the late part of his career, but whereas Wong’s The Grandmaster felt more Western and familiar than any of his previous films, The Assassin is almost indecipherable to anyone without a relatively strong knowledge of the short story, the time period and the expectations of wuxia as a whole. That’s even more striking in that as an adaptation of a short story The Assassin has a fairly simple narrative, centring on Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), an eighth-century assassin who is weakened by mercy on a routine mission and is therefore sent by her master to kill Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen), a cousin to whom she had once been engaged and who now resides in the remote province of Weibo. All of that is – presumably – established in the first twenty minutes, since most of the film simply observes and waits with Yinniang as she lingers around the fringes and interstices of Ji’an’s palatial property, watching and waiting to make her final move. However, I was only able to piece together even that rudimentary narrative retrospectively, since the film is quite remarkable in its refusal to accommodate the story to a contemporary Chinese audience, let alone a contemporary Western audience, making for a studied and profound muteness that often seems more silent then silent cinema and slower than anything in Hou’s oeuvre to date.
At the time of watching the film, all I was able to deduce was the central fact of Yinniang waiting, ceaselessly, for an opportunity to assassinate Ji’an, a process that in itself has a fair amount of affective resonance given that both her professionalism and her previous, unresolved romance with her target is at stake. In order to contour that waiting, Hou adds more and more to his mise-en-scene, but he adds so little and at such a slow rate that addition often feels more like subtraction: with each new element we’re reminded of how much is vast, quiet and empty in this alien world. After a black-and-white opening depicting Yinniang’s two failed assassination attempts – the most action-driven five minutes in the entire film – Hou gradually adds more and more colour, little by little, while moving from a constrained aspect ratio to a fuller screen every now and then as well. At the same time, we get more and more bursts of non-diegetic sound, although nothing ever approaching a soundtrack. In many ways, it’s more like Hou simply allows the soundscapes of adjacent scenes to overlap more fluidly, creating a strange ambient space between diegetic and non-diegetic sound that just seems to intensify the stillness.
Similarly, for all that Hou gradually introduces more into his mise-en-scenes, the action and narrative itself becomes stiller and more minimal, as cinematographic enhancement is paired with narrative restraint to facilitate a combination of sensory deprivation and sensory augmentation that is deeply meditative and mindful. Apparently, Xing’s short story is not merely considered a staple of classical Chinese literature, but an enduring manual on swordsmanship in its in right, and the intense focus and concentration feels as if it is designed to train and inculcate us into a particular mindset as much as to establish an atmosphere or world that has any direct bearing on our own. Proceeding in short segments that lie somewhere between a shot and a scene, each episode seems to sketch out a character or ideogram in a kind of cinematic equivalent to Chinese calligraphy. While there is camera movement, it is not exactly about opening up physical space so much as creating a kind of calligraphic momentum that makes all the shots in any one segment feel sequential but not necessarily continuous, with their full import and unity only becoming clear in retrospect, once the ink has dried and the film coalesces into a luminous whole, a process that for me took place some time after actually leaving the cinema.
However it is the quietness, above all, that defines the film – it is uncanny how quiet it is, especially in a theatre – in what I would be tempted to call white noise were it not for the fact that the film seems too defiantly distanced from contemporary Western technology for white noise to make sense. Instead, it’s more like a kind of negative noise, which creates a deep sense of suspense and even horror at times, exceeding even silent cinema in its hushed repose: although sound is theoretically available here, there’s no inner motivation for the characters to break into it, rendering them as hermetically sealed and sequestered from the viewer as the remote past. I’ll admit that when I watched it my ears were partly blocked, but in many ways that seems the ideal viewing position – straining for a sound that isn’t actually there – with the quietness seeming to determine the film’s entire sense of space and place as well, overlaying everything with a glacial slowness that relegates it to a history so distant that it may as well be fantasy or science fiction.
In other words, the great achievement of the film is that it feels as close to the 8th-century setting as the 9th-century short story – its intended audience is citizens of the Tang Dynasty – setting us adrift in an ambient mise-en-scene whose signature sequences see Yinniang approaching her target through a plethora of veils and thresholds that break out periodically to find their logical conclusion in the discontinuous perspectives and floating, hovering, precipitous spaces of Chinese landscape painting. Even the interior sequences, however, favour mise-en-scenes in which characters in the background – especially Yinniang – take an eternity to register themselves as distinct from the texture of the film, let alone to dissociate themselves from it, imbuing every bodily movement with the floating ethereality of a painting brought to life. That said, Chinese landscape painting doesn’t seem to be fixated with the closure of the frame and autonomy of the artwork in the same way as European landscape painting, with the result that Hou’s exquisite mise-en-scenes finally feel less like cinematic adaptations of paintings and more like cinematic evocations of the free-floating numinous affective apprehensions that these paintings are designed to subsume themselves into in the first place.
It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that the actual fight scenes are few and far between, and always see Yinniang vanish back into the night air without a trace. If anything, the most visceral and violent aspects of the fighting lies in the shock of hearing swords clashing and bodies heaving after the uncanny quietness of everything else, although even these few moments of plosive impact seem awed by the negative sound surrounding them. In film criticism it’s not uncommon to speak of characters having a presence – or a presence exceeding a character – but here that’s peculiarly and powerfully true, as Yinniang is almost entirely dissolved into the fabric of the film just as her own professional and romantic drama is finally subsumed into Hou’s exquisite muteness. While it’s what makes the film so original artistically, it also struck me that there was something quite pointed and even political about that muteness given the insatiability with which the Chinese mainstream entertainment media allegorises the myth of China, as well as the way in which Western cinema, both mainstream and arthouse, tends to treat China as a mere opportunity for allegorising itself. In The Assassin there is a steadfast refusal to allegorise that actually ends up making the film feel authentically and irreducibly Chinese in a different kind of way – Chinese enough, one might say, to alienate a Western audience looking for an exotic fix – as if to evoke China’s presence in our everyday lives as somehow both as foundational and as mute as the remotest recesses of the past. To embrace that alienation and to be prepared to be muted in turn is to bear witness to cinema as a sacred art, in one of the most mercurial big screen experiences I have had for some time.