Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien won the award for best director at the 68th Cannes Film Festival for his brilliant work in 2015’s The Assassin. Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s unique vision transcends The Assassin from a martial arts film into an art-house cinematic experience. However, I wouldn’t expect The Assassin to be highly influential in the wuxia genre, not because it isn’t deserving to be, but it purposely avoids many traditional tropes and conventions for what makes for a crowd pleasing, popular martial arts film that few directors and movie studios would likely follow in his forward thinking footsteps.
By its very nature the wuxia genre, known for its highly flying swordsmen and ancient sorcery, has a fantastical element to it. In contrast, Hou Hsiao-Hsien takes a beauty in realism approach to the cinematography and action. It’s not a hyper exaggerated beauty that calls attention to itself such as characters swaying atop a bamboo forest in slow motion. Hou Hsiao-Hsien finds beauty in the mundane and stillness of life.
While many martial arts films rush to the action, The Assassin’s slow, drawn out pace finds a palpable uneasiness in the silence. But the moody, minimalist soundtrack itself is rarely completely silent because of the constant sound of crickets’ high pitched chirping in the background. The realism extends to the detailed and exquisite Tang dynasty era costume designs. Where there is a slight hiccup is noticeable CGI smoke in one scene which pulled me out of the movie watching experience, but otherwise it’s a well visualized film.
The Assassin is unlike other martial arts films because it has very little in the way of epic fight scenes. Hou Hsiao-Hsien is concerned with the build-up of tension leading up to and winding down from a fight. The action itself is often over quickly and doesn’t revel in violence or gore. This approach lends towards the humanist based story centered on a young Assassin ordered to kill a governor whom she was once betrothed to but must ultimately decide for herself what are her principles and what choice to make.
Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s artistic sensibilities are most apparent in a lengthy scene that puts a moving camera behind a billowing, slightly sheer curtain. It’s a complex and challenging shot for viewers because much of the screen is veiled with only brief moments of complete clarity when the wind blows the curtain just enough so that we can see though holes in the fabric. Essentially it puts the viewer in the first-person perspective of an assassin who’s not only spying in the shadows but is torn between wanting to connect to her target. In lesser hands, this scene could have come across as trying too hard to be an auteur director but it’s quite mesmerizing.
The Assassin is a beautifully cinematographed film and a demanding work of art. Because the approach to the storytelling, characters and action choreography are relatively subtle, it doesn’t fall into mainstream movie conventions. What is clear is that director Hou Hsiao-Hsien puts his own fresh perspective and signature onto the martial arts cinematic landscape.
This post is part of MovieRob’s Genre Grandeur on Foreign Language Films (2013 – present). For all the posts, check out MovieRob’s site.