Cannes: The Assassin review

Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin is set during the Tang Dynasty of China, the period from 618 AD to 690 AD and then from 705 AD to 907 AD. The break in the dynasty was the result of the seizing of the throne by Empress Wu Zeitan, China’s only Chinese empress regnant.

Whilst the interruption of the dynasty is not specifically addressed in The Assassin, it seems rather significant that Hsiao-hsien and writers Chu Tien-wen, Hsieh Hai-meng and Zhong Acheng chose this time in which to set their story; the context does not seem entirely coincidental to both of their lead characters being female.

This is another example of Hsiao-hsien’s interest in women and desire to focus on their stories instead of those about men. The titular assassin is Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), who was taken from her family at a young age and brought up by a nun (Sheu Fang-yi) who trained her in the martial arts.

When we meet Yinniang, she is a highly skilled assassin. She has such confidence in her abilities that, in several scenes, she opts not to to dispatch her foes but rather demonstrate her prowess and impress upon them the extent of her superior capabilities.

Hsiao-hsien may not have been primarily concerned with the action, and this wuxia is a contemplative melancholy one, but that doesn’t mean the audience aren’t treated to some exquisitely well-captured martial arts sequences. These scenes are shot and edited in an entirely coherent and absorbing manner, with Hsiao-hsien, martial arts consultant Stephen Tung Wai and cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bing delivering a series of fluid long takes, rarely moving into close-up and breaking for cuts only when necessary to convey impact or effect.

These carefully crafted images are accompanied by the highly atmospheric and complementary score from Lim Gong. Music and sound effects are often almost indistinguishable in The Assassin, coming together to both ramp up tension and underscore emotion.

In effect, this is one of the most quietly gripping films I have ever seen. It is far from a thriller, with a glacial pace that matches its elegiac themes, but it is nonetheless a film consumed with suspense. I realised at one point that I had been holding my breath for quite some time while simply watching a character drink from a cup.

The narrative is light on events – Yinniang is sent to assassinate her cousin and wrestles with the mission – but it is heavy on subtext. Hsiao-hsien is interested in what it means to take a life, and how one might consider this choice.

It’s also an exceptionally beautiful film, with compositions that are simply breathtaking but always meaningful. Hsiao-hsien demonstrates real sensitivity to how space might tell his story, help the audience understand character relationships, and convey emotion. The distance between two characters in one of the many wide shots might place them precisely for a beautifully composed and impressive frame, but it always also relates to what Hsiao-hsien is saying.

The film’s prologue is in black and white and the remainder of the film is in colour. Considering Hsiao-hsien’s need for wide shots and expansive landscapes, it is unexpected to see that The Assassin is presented almost entirely in 1.37:1, with brief moments in 1.85:1.

One shot made for the wider frame provides a rare chance to see Yinniang happy, or close to it. This is a memory and it feels very separate to the main narrative, but is also essential to understanding the character. The scene is also distinct in that it appears to have been shot on film, while the rest of the production was digital, which also contributes to the feeling of the memory being remote and intangible. These twists to the visual dynamics strike me as a particularly graceful way to communicate with the audience.

A meditative work of the highest order, The Assassin is the kind of contemplative cinema that might keep its audience awake at night, trying to untangle its many strands and consider its deeper meanings. This film positively vibrates with hidden depths.

I am very wary of making grand declarations so soon after a screening, but I do feel entirely comfortable in saying that The Assassin is, very simply, a masterpiece.