The Assassin, the new film by Hou Hsiao-Hsien, is set in ninth-century China, and in many ways it feels like an artifact from that era: finely wrought, obscure, inert. Ostensibly the story of a young and beautiful female assassin tasked with killing the cousin to whom she was betrothed as a child, the film is stripped of any modern narrative conventions or psychological motivation. The characters are rendered as flatly as those on a piece of pottery or a tapestry, and are acted out with the impassivity of the puppets from Hou’s own The Puppetmaster (1993). Where most narrative features take their cues from the realist novels that were popular in the late nineteenth century when cinema was invented, The Assassin models itself on a medieval romance or myth, in which a series of actions succeed one another without comment, emphasis, or inflection.
The world of the film is one of meticulous and exquisite detail. The sets and costumes are impeccable, and Hou’s camera frames them with a careful precision. Interiors are hung with rich wood and silk, lit by flickering candles, and shot through billowing curtains of gauze. Exteriors give us images of mountain landscapes shrouded in mist and birch forests dappled with sunlight. Visually, The Assassin most closely resembles Hou’s Flowers of Shanghai, set entirely within the closed world of a nineteenth-century brothel. But that film involved us in a more engrossing narrative, while The Assassin keeps us at a distance that could be called chilly. Onto this mannered historical epic Hou attempts to join a series of a kung-fu action sequences, to awkward effect: the nature of the story is such that it’s often difficult to tell who is fighting whom (let alone why), and the transitions to and from these sequences feel, at times, downright clumsy. Considering that Hou’s command of camerawork and editing is usually beyond reproach, it’s a shock to find such sloppy craftsmanship here.
The Assassin is being heralded as a masterpiece by some; it won Hou a Best Director award at Cannes earlier this year. I can understand others’ reasons for appreciating it at the same time that I can’t recommend it in good faith. It is a movie to regard with a curious—almost grudging—respect rather than with love.