Combustible Celluloid
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With: Shu Qi, Chang Chen, Zhou Yun, Satoshi Tsumabuki, Ethan Juan, Juan Ching-tian, Hsieh Hsin-ying, Sheu Fang-yi
Written by: Hou Hsiao-hsien, Chu Tien-wen, Hsieh Hai-meng, Zhang Acheng, based on a story by Pei Xing
Directed by: Hou Hsiao-hsien
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: Mandarin, with English subtitles
Running Time: 107
Date: 10/23/2015

The Assassin (2015)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Battle Tales

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Hou Hsiao-hsien's The Assassin is one of the best movies of the year (possibly the best), and may be the best movie Hou has ever made in his long and highly acclaimed career. (It's my personal favorite of the ten Hou films I've seen to date.) It's also one of the most beautiful martial arts movies I've ever seen — it leaves Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon far, far behind — as well as being one of the most beautiful movies of any type I've seen in recent years. And yet I'm forced to couch my praise in caveats and warnings.

The Assassin is slow. It's much, much slower than viewers are used to seeing. As a critic, I have adjusted to seeing slow movies as well as fast ones, but regular moviegoers will be positively sideswiped by how slow it is. But is this a failing of the movie, or of moviegoers? Is The Assassin a bad movie because it demands your attention, demands that you become immersed in its meditative rhythms, demands that you lose yourself in its unique flow? It can't be.

So, instead Hou highlights a problem with the human condition. Of course The Assassin is not a bad movie. It won't appeal to tons and tons of people, but never has mass consumption been a measure of quality. (Sometimes works of good quality are mass consumed, but sometimes works of poor quality are equally mass consumed. These things are not connected.) Rather, the movie shows that we have grown lazy as viewers. Decades of post-Star Wars popcorn blockbusters and reality TV has worn down our synapses. It takes more effort to engage in our entertainment now. If a movie or a show asks us to consider our own existence while watching, we resist. We want something to be done to us... we don't want to have to help.

Hou is not unique in movie history, though. He is of the same school as Robert Bresson, the great French filmmaker who stripped away traditional performance from his actors, whom he referred to as "models." Hou has also acknowledged his debt to Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu, whose quiet, family tableaus left room for moments of pause and breath. These filmmakers, and others like them, are perhaps better appreciated after their deaths, and by hardcore cinephiles, but there's no question that their art is of the highest calibre that cinema has so far achieved.

So if you're a viewer that can handle a little breathing room, a little time and a little effort, as well as a concept of history and historical perspective, then don't hesitate to see The Assassin. It takes place during the Tang Dynasty of the 9th century. The movie gives a few title cards to explain that there's an emperor whose hold on various outlying provinces is tenuous. One of the most powerful of these is the Weibo province. It's the birthplace of the main character, the beautiful Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi, who appears in her third film for Hou, after Millennium Mambo and Three Times).

As a girl, Nie Yinniang was kidnapped and raised to be an assassin. When she fails her mistress on a mission (in a striking, black-and-white prologue), she is punished with another mission: she is to return home and kill the man she was once meant to marry: the governor of Weibo, Lord Tian Ji'an (Chang Chen, also of Three Times). She is, of course, hesitant. She stages a few "attacks," but more to make her presence known — to let Tian Ji'an see her face — than to move in for the kill. She becomes aware of some of the local family drama, i.e. a hidden pregnancy. But mainly it's a dance between duty and humanity.

Hou stages the martial arts scenes differently from any other film you've seen. They begin quickly and end quickly. They are frequently secret attacks, with an assailant dropping in, striking a blow, and leaving. The scenes are sometimes framed in one long shot, from some distance, but each one has its own personality and purpose. One of the most powerful "attacks" takes place as Nie Yinniang spies on Tian Ji'an from behind a billowing curtain; she seems to magically appear and disappear from behind its folds. Nie Yinniang is not entirely emotionless in her duty. Once, when alone, she weeps silently, and she sometimes fingers a piece of jade, half of which was given to her husband-to-be. (In her role, Shu Qi is magnificent.)

As a boy, Hou apparently read every martial arts novel (called "wuxia") he could get his hands on and has long dreamed of making a movie, although he wouldn't dare unless he could make it in his own style. It is, of course, less about the martial arts or the story than it is about the deep, spiritual, existential conflicts within, and the way the form articulates these conflicts, about how movement and stillness conflict and complement one another. Hou has employed his usual crew, including the great cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bing, who does his best work here. It took the filmmaker eight years to put it all together — his last film was the great Flight of the Red Balloon (2007) with Juliette Binoche — but it was worth the wait.

Many of Hou's movies — including masterworks like A City of Sadness (1989), The Puppetmaster (1993), and Flowers of Shanghai (1998) — never received a release in the U.S., although they tend to do well at festival showings among his small groups of passionate followers. And yet, despite this outsider status, The Assassin has been selected as Taiwan's official submission for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 2016 Academy Awards. Since the 1980s, only a few good films have won that award, thanks to restrictive rules and politics. But, if in the unlikely event that The Assassin is actually nominated — and actually wins — it will stand tall among films by Fellini, Bergman, Truffaut, Kurosawa, Bunuel, De Sica, and Tati. Until then, and for now, just know that it's the best movie in town.

Well Go USA released a Blu-ray of excellent quality, more than good enough to highlight this film's beauties on the home screen. It features only a few brief extras, however: four behind-the-scenes featurettes of about 3 minutes each, and trailers for this and three other Well Go USA releases.

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