The Thickness of the World in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin


Screen Shot 2015-10-16 at 8.28.31 AM

Editor’s Notes: The Assassin is out in limited release today, October 16th. 

The story itself is perhaps straightforward enough within the martial arts genre: in ninth-century China, during the Tang Dynasty, a young woman named Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), daughter of the late general of Weibo province, has trained as an assassin since childhood. She sets forth back into the world to kill her cousin Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen), the current governor of Weibo. Additionally, the obstacles to fulfilling this mission are also perhaps familiar within the thematic conflict of duty vs. individual desire in the martial arts genre: commingling with the world again and its attendant social bonds; and the realm of emotion – which also includes Yinniang’s familial past and the fact that governor Ji’an was once her betrothed and now has a family of his own. All of these elements compel Yinniang to question the challenge before her as well as the mentor (Sheu Fang-yi) who assigns her the mission and all she stands for (detachment from affect, efficiency, and self-negation).

This thickness conveys the world of the film and the film is precisely about this world.

However, what transpires onscreen constitutes a great deal more than merely addressing the pursuit of this mission in all its objectivity and concreteness, in clear-cut images in the service of exposition, and in strict keeping with martial arts film tropes. Instead The Assassin operates on the following paradoxical crux: capturing the shifting beat of feeling, mood, and intention of those that the mission touches, beginning with Yinniang herself, through a mosaic, piecemeal approach to events and actions that actually leaves more unsaid than explained.

Screen Shot 2015-10-16 at 8.32.40 AMThe effect is of a living, breathing world with two faces: that of the community of the principal characters and that of what lies beyond it. Hou’s mosaic-sequences/scenes sculpt the characters and their settings that concern Yinniang in very palpable detail at the level of decor, costumes, and movements: the bold vertical lines of walls, columns, doorways, various candelabra, and the actors; the sumptuous furniture that competes with shadows to be seen in the midst of the actors; the actors wrapped in richly coloured dress, whose myriad folds/layers create their own architectural lines to capture the eye and shift in accordance with movement.

There is a synesthetic thickness that characterises Hou’s world-building in his films, making the visual tactile and vice-versa. This thickness, however, is never gratuitous. This thickness conveys the world of the film and the film is precisely about this world. In The Assassin, this thickness gives volume not only to the characters’ lived-in settings but also to their embeddedness in their social roles, whether they like it or not. This thickness manifests itself in the layered lushness of the clothes, the syrupy suspension of their movements in their clothes and their speech in scene after scene, rendering them both visually and ideologically powerless to go or think beyond what their social title dictates.

The great number of shots wherein Hou interposes objects and/or fabrics between the camera and the actors in the unfolding of a scene also marks the division between the world of Yinniang’s mission and the rest of the open, unknown world.

Hou thus sets up the contrast between the vibrancy of these material elements that constitute the characters’ dominion and the ideological elements that operate in it, that is, tradition and duty, born of status and title, not to mention historical precedent. The twin jade pieces that link Yinniang and Ji’an historically and emotionally incarnate this thread of tradition and duty in behaviour. Emotions are pinned down like butterflies encased in glass, as is individual passion and path-forging. Yinniang undergoing the ritual of bathing and being clothed in royal dress early in the film undeniably signals her return to the social world and its set of obligations and appointed roles, including her mission to kill Ji’an.

Put another way, Hou sets up the contrast between realistic time and mythical time. Fluttering outside this mythical realm of status and overdetermined duties is the rest of the world and nature, which Yinniang re-encounters as she is in the throes of her mission. Hou stages an encounter between the realistic and mythical across all of his scenes: the wind that blows the curtains; makes candle flames flicker; whispers through the clothes and hair, as characters intone their thoughts and memories to each other practically without moving and without looking at each other. The camera’s oscillating, floating movement also propels the staging of the mythical with the realistic. Through the camera, the spectator here takes on the role of not as one among the characters but rather as a (temporally and physically) distant observer and surveyor of human behaviour as if it were a landscape, not content to rest the glance on whoever is speaking at a given moment…and even perhaps waiting for the tradition, duty, and orderliness to crack.

The sole character who transgresses this world of overdetermined orderliness and duty is Yinniang, despite the aforementioned ritual that signals her responsibility to this world. Her liminal status as an assassin is what precisely enables this transgression; it locates her between the stasis of duty and the mobility of the mission, encased in the history that has preceded her but also with the potential to break with this same historical weight because of her martial arts skills. Yinniang’s fight against a masked swordswoman among the birch trees articulates this break, even anticipates her actual break with her mentor. In her martial encounters with these two women, the mark of her victory is not in their deaths but in the breaking of what is such a forceful part of this realm, their material habits: a mask broken in two and a tear in an otherwise white, pristine costume. Yinniang’s role as a liminal, spectral presence, as an outsider looking in, is visualised most profoundly when she stands among the billowing curtains eyeing her target Ji’an and his concubine in a silent, tender moment; she is able to move in and out of the folds while they, however much they may give way to emotion and movement, seem condemned within the folds.

In spatial and kinetic terms, the entire film operates between, or within, the space that separates movement and stillness in a literal way; the camera’s lingering, searching movement reinforces this effect. By her very nature as an assassin, Yinniang is movement-stillness personified. In fact, we see her just as much in stillness, waiting, as in movement. In turn, Hou photographs and edits her movement in a way that we see oftentimes only the concluding gesture of an act, with the sound of her gesture (the swing of her blade hitting the wind, her victim, or another blade) filling in the visual gap between the start and end of her actions.

The great number of shots wherein Hou interposes objects and/or fabrics between the camera and the actors in the unfolding of a scene also marks the division between the world of Yinniang’s mission and the rest of the open, unknown world. The latter is most notably signified by the peasants and their house where Yinniang stays; the setting is open, vast, and improvised. It is no accident that the film’s last shot is of this space.

The film’s particular details find a cinematic kindred spirit in Kobayashi Masaki’s Seppuku (1962). The comparison between this film and Seppuku are more than visual. In both films, the visual echoes the ideological: in Seppuku, a ronin arrives at a clan’s manor to commit ritual disembowelment, but in the process lays bare the abusive, narcissistic, and corrupt system engaged in samurai worship, in an audience with clan superiors and its retainers. In the clan’s courtyard where the audience is held, all is orderly, meticulous, and aesthetically polished, which paradoxically belies the clan’s strict interpretation of feudal law, devoid of human sentiment and waywardness. All is still as well, each person in his place in the hierarchy and duty, which then technically overdetermines the ronin’s place through sheer weight of numbers.

Yinniang in The Assassin is also outnumbered. But like the ronin in Seppuku, she lays bare a static, implosive system, in her own way. Not through verbal narration and a fight-to-the-death as in Seppuku, but rather, through introspection, looking, and hearing, and a turning of the feet to walk a path that leads elsewhere. She chooses nature when she returns to the peasants’ abode and (literally) turns her back on her pre-ordained life and self, shot in a most unadorned but touching way.


About Author

Film lecturer at CSULB. Transnational, multilingual, migratory cinephilia.