There is little doubt as to whether Yinniang (Shu Qi), the title figure of The Assassin, has the ability to carry out her latest assignment. The question is whether she will. “Your heart lacks resolve,” her master (Zhou Yun) tells her after she neglected to murder a previous target because he was holding his young son. And so, as both punishment and a test, she’s ordered to kill a provincial leader who is also her cousin (Chang Chen).
The Assassin involves tangled Tang Dynasty political machinations and rich displays of historical customs — both of which, I’ll confess, I didn’t always follow — yet the movie nonetheless remained riveting because of the way it portrays the central tension between Yinniang’s duty and her desire. Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien wields cinematic tools such as sound design, cinematography and camera movement with such delicate precision, it’s as if he’s working with a paintbrush. The result is a full immersion in the terrible beauty of Yinniang’s predicament.
Consider a standout sequence about midway through the film, in which a silent Yinniang watches her cousin Tian from behind an array of translucent curtains. Hou brings us into the room with a slow pan that represents Yinniang’s movement and point of view. As Tian broods on his situation (at this point Yinniang has already posed a threat on the grounds of his estate), the curtains softly blow back and forth in front of the camera’s lens, causing the candles in the room to transform into surreal, kaleidoscopic orbs. After a considerable wait, the camera cuts to Tian’s point of view just as the curtains drift aside to reveal Yinniang. Their vision becomes clear, even if their fate remains clouded.
These palatial estates are only steps away from the natural world.
In the background of that scene, as well as many others, is the single, slow beat of a drum. In a Film Comment interview Hou said that such instruments would beat at dawn and dusk to serve as a communal clock, but here they conjure up inevitability and doom. Contrasting that is the omnipresent sound of chirping birds and tender breezes, a reminder that for all their opulence, these palatial estates are only steps away from the natural world.
Indeed, The Assassin is as lush outside of these ostentatious homes as it is within. The movie’s opening sequence is in black and white, lending the mountains and fields a densely textured richness. It’s so entrancing, in fact, that when the film switches to color for its title sequence, you almost wished it had stayed in monochrome. But then we’re rewarded with an explosion of gorgeously vibrant hues, as when a mysterious figure in a gold mask and purple robe stands next to the deep green of a mossy tree.
As Yinniang, Shu Qi essentially gives a silent movie performance — and a minimalist one at that. Even her acts of violence are so quick and furtive that they’re hardly noticed. (In a meditative early shot, Hou equates Yinniang’s lethal strike with the wind rustling through leaves.) When we do get a chance to study her face, we see the vacant stare of someone who is present in body, but not in spirit.
This is likely because Yinniang and Tian are both at the mercy of puppet masters — she to her trainer, he to tradition. Yinniang tries to break free in a climactic conversation with her master that is captured in a stunning, three-minute single take at the edge of a cliff. As Yinniang explains the choice she has made, the light fog that has been drifting up from the valley below imperceptibly gathers strength, until its swirling has obscured just about everything on the screen except the bluff on which her master stands. Considering The Assassin‘s mixture of history and myth, realism and fantasy, it seems as if Yinniang’s decision has angered the very nature of the universe.