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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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‘The Assassin’: meditation as well as martial arts

Dan Webster

Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien won the best director award at last May's Cannes Film Festival. His offering, "The Assassin," is playing at the Magic Lantern Theater. Following is the review of "The Assassin" that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio

Unlike many – if not most – children of the 21st century, I became a habitual movie-goer after learning how to read. And as a reader, I quickly learned to expect something specific out of the experience: namely, the ability to follow a narrative as it relates a plot or, at the very least, makes a conceptual point.

As my movie tastes grew more sophisticated, and as I began to seek out film from all over the globe, the manner in which I defined both plot and point evolved. I learned to appreciate storylines that were as scattered as they were obscure, points that were as debatable as they were abstruse … abstruse in the sense, as playwright Edward Albee would say, of recondite.

So when I watched veteran Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s award-winning movie “The Assassin,” I was prepared to not understand everything. Which, it turns out, is an understatement.

What I was NOT prepared for was just how beautiful the visuals Hou gives us would be – beautiful to the point that I ultimately didn’t care at all whether I understood what “The Assassin” was trying to say.

To be clear, “The Assassin” was one of the most acclaimed films to emerge from last May’s Cannes Film Festival. The festival jury awarded Hou its Best Director award, with composer Lim Giong picking up an award for the film’s evocative soundtrack.

Set in 9th century China, “The Assassin” focuses on a young woman who – at the age of 10 – is taken away by a mysterious nun who specializes in training assassins-for-hire. We first see our protagonist (played by the icily beautiful Taiwanese actress Shu Qi) in a black-and-white prologue that shows her dashing from a copse of trees to dispatch a man racing by on a horse. But when, in a second assignment, our killer refuses to kill a man because he is holding his son, the nun decides to remove her student’s inclinations toward mercy: Her task? To return to her home province and kill the young provincial Lord to whom she was once betrothed.

That much, it seems, is clear. But so much more isn’t. What, for example, are the motives behind the nun’s machinations? What is the relationship between the young Lord and the two women in his life? Who is the mysterious masked woman whom our protagonist fights amid the white spines of a cedar forest? Why does Hou’s camera linger for long single takes on every image from fog moving up a starkly beautiful mountainside to a pen full of goats?

Clearly, Hou is far more concerned with how “The Assassin” looks than what it has to say – at least to those Western viewers not familiar with either Chinese history or its cultural references. Virtually all the shots he uses display his mastery of framing and movement – or lack of – in a way that trivializes virtually every other filmmaking requirement.

That includes even, and perhaps especially, literal meaning. It occurs rarely, but beauty can be that stunning – which is a truism that Hou, clearly enough, embraces with more vigor than most.

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