In the United States, a movie of this title would generate expectations of bloody violence, of relentless gore, of heartless killers and the gutless, conscienceless men who give them their pitiless orders. Maybe a few hyperkinetic chase scenes, maybe a rapid-fire sex romp, just for meaningless titillation. Nothing sublime or beautiful or noble.
Decorated Taiwanese film director Hou Hsiao-hsien overturns all these expectations. “The Assassin” is set in 9th century China, where a failing dynasty set up outposts to maintain control of the populace, but after 100 years or so, the outposts themselves were becoming separate entities not necessarily loyal to the capitol.
In her childhood, Nie Yinniang (Qi Shu) was abducted during a skirmish, and raised by a nun, who taught her martial arts. When she became “of age,” her orders were to take revenge. Yinniang had no trouble defending herself against anyone who attacked her, but when it came to killing a chieftain she once knew, when she could see that he had young children and it would turn the province into chaos, she hesitated, and returned to her mistress, seeking solace from her demanding teacher.
But none of this plot line is completely evident during the movie itself, which seems so unhurried as to be almost dreamlike. Director Hsiao-hsien, rather than cutting scenes in the traditional way, instead presents us with one tableau followed by another. A hillside with wheat stirring in a soft breeze. The woods, in winter, bare branches forming an elegantly tangled backdrop to the winding dirt path. Two brightly colored yellow leaves nest in a garden bed. Fog on the water in the morning, a small island just visible on the near horizon. Majestic mountains in the background, a pen of goats chewing cud in the foreground.
And then, suddenly, there is swordplay, urgent yet majestic in its movements. No spurting arteries here, though. Yinniang arrives silently, moves swiftly through battle, and dispatches grunting opponents with a mere whisper of her deadly blade. And then she's gone again.
Even indoors, we see quiet beauty all around: candlelight vigils, origami, tea served with silent bows, quiet gardens, painted silkscreens, carved and polished wood. There's a quietude that so pervades the whole movie that we wonder if the screenplay reflects the reluctance of our heroine to engage in any senseless violence, no matter what is expected of her.
A little bit of voodoo, a fleeing glimpse of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”-type martial arts moves. Long periods without dialogue, and even then, it's in Mandarin, with English captions. This one is designed for the viewer to sit still and just let the images flow over you, until you sense the great calm underneath them. And if you're not in the mood for anything that slow-moving, well, there's always the James Bond movie on the next screen, which might meet all your expectations of this title, but without the gentle soul at its core.
Questions for Discussion:
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen is the Supply Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Mabank, Texas