Many of the press materials surrounding The Assassin, art house master Hou Hsiao-hsien’s new wuxia film, point out that the project was years in the making. This is an understatement.
The first feature-length film the director has shot since 2008’s critically acclaimed Flight of the Red Balloon suffered a number of setbacks during shooting (production actually stopped at two separate times), but Hou’s efforts to bring this vision to the screen started a good quarter of a century earlier. Discussion about The Assassin first appeared in the English press materials for the auteur’s breakthrough film A City of Sadness back in 1989, when screenwriter and longtime Hou collaborator Chu Tien-wen mentioned that she was working on a script for it. And the original inspiration for the film dates back even further than that, to the now 68-year-old director’s high school and college years, when he first became familiar with the chuanqi (short stories) from the Tang Dynasty. One of those chuanqi, Nie Yinniang, plays a substantial role in what eventually became The Assassin. “You could say that I took the basic dramatic idea from it,” Hou says in the film’s press kit from this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
The Assassin isn’t just worth the wait, though, it’s worth all of the years of thought and effort that went into making it, as well. Filmed in Inner Mongolia, northeast China and Hubei Province, and set in 9th century China during the Tang Dynasty, it’s a beautiful and haunting work of art.
At the tender age of 10, Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), a general’s daughter, is kidnapped by a nun who teaches her martial arts and transforms her into a highly skilled assassin. The young woman’s missions are ostensibly good and honorable, and she conducts them admirably, taking out corrupt despots with ease, until one day, 13 years into her training, her conscience gets the better of her and she fails to kill a man in front of his child. In response, her master sends her back to her homeland on an even more devastating and soul-searching mission: she must kill her cousin—the man she was once promised to and might still love—who is now the leader of a major military force.
The Assassin renders its titular character's struggle, in which she must weigh her calling as an assassin against her own personal morals, and reconcile her allegiances to her master to her relationship to her own family, through an impressive mix of painting-like cinematography, expert performances (Shu Qi is particularly effective as a warrior whose ice cold execution belies an absolute torrent of emotions under the surface), and simple but perfectly choreographed fight scenes. It’s a near-perfect combination of the best that classic wuxia has to offer and Hou’s own stunning cinematic and philosophical style.
“It’s the result of a long journey to maturity,” Hou says of his first foray into martial arts as a filmmaker. “When I was a kid, in the Taiwan of the 1950s, my school library had lots of so-called wuxia novels. I loved them, and read them all. I also got through the translations of fantastic stories from abroad; I particularly remember novels by Jules Verne. Of course there were also the wuxia films from Hong Kong, known in the west as kung fu and swordplay movies. I discovered them when I was very young, and went crazy for them. I wanted to try my hand at the genre one day - but in the realist vein which suits my temperament. It’s not really my style to have fighters flying through the air or doing pirouettes on the ceiling; that’s not my way, and I couldn’t do it. I prefer to keep my feet on the ground. The fight scenes in The Assassin refer to those generic traditions, but they are certainly not the core of the drama.”
What interested Hou most of all, though, was the psychological aspect of martial arts stories. “The biggest influences on me were Japanese samurai films by Kurosawa and others, where what really matters are the philosophies that go with the strange business of being a samurai and not the action scenes themselves, which are merely a means to an end and basically anecdotal.”
In an interview with Film Business Asia, Hou admitted that he found the coordination of elaborate historical sets, costumes, and fights a challenge.
“Shooting a film set during the Tang Dynasty, you can't treat it like how you shoot a modern story. With a contemporary movie, if you don't get what you want then you can keep shooting. If something's not right on set, you can change it on the spot. But if you're shooting the Tang Dynasty, if you didn't prepare it beforehand, then the set won't be there and the costumes aren't prepared. You can't just conjure them, so it turns out that every single detail you gotta prepare and prepare for ages. Because of my way of film-making, maybe it makes my movies stylized, but you can only do that if you have time. But Tang dynasty's sets... so many sets! And the fighting choreography! My god! I was deep in shit. It was terrible!”
Using stars with little combat background was also trying at moments. “Even with protective padding and other safety precautions, even using wooden swords, such scenes are necessarily violent. Shu Qi, my lead actress, came out of filming the action scenes covered with bruises.”
The Assassin is worth all of those challenges and injuries and frustrations, too, though. After premiering at Cannes in May, it received almost uniformly positive reviews, further cementing Hou’s status as an art house legend in the making. It also secured him the festival’s trophy for Best Director. Since then, it’s screened at high profile film festivals like the Toronto International Film Festival, become a box office hit in China, and secured a spot as Taiwan’s official entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the forthcoming Academy Awards. It promises to remain both an art house and wuxia classic for years to come.
The Assassin opens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, Canada on October 30. For more information, visit the website.
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