Don’t miss your chance to see it on the big screen—if you think you can get the full experience of this one on your stupid 42-inch HD TV, you’re wrong.
The new Hou Hsiao-hsien film The Assassin, Hou’s first in eight years, opens at the Webster Film Series on January 15th, one day after the Academy announces its Oscar nominations. In a just world, there would be synergy here, as The Assassin deserves not only to receive a whole lot of those nominations, but it deserves to win in many categories. Alas, we do not live in a just world (that, and the Academy is really just incredibly stupid), as it’s been predetermined that The Assassin won’t pull a single nomination. Apparently it wasn’t properly submitted to be considered in fields such as Best Cinematography and Best Production Design (both of which categories it no-question was the best of 2015 in), and is thus ineligible, and in the one category it is eligible, for Best Foreign-Language Film (it’s its native Taiwan’s official submission for 2015), it failed to so much as make the shortlist, so it won’t be nominated there, either.
We can dry our tears on other facts, though. The Assassin cleaned up at the Golden Horse Awards, which is the Chinese-language equivalent to the Oscars; there it won Best Picture, Director, Cinematography, and two others, and was nominated for another five awards on top of that. Hou won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival last year. The Academy can suck it.
Elsewhere, now is a good time for The Assassin to be coming into the world. There’s been a renewed interest in the Taiwanese New Wave lately, which movement Hou is a major figure from. A lot of this Taiwanese New Wave renaissance has come at the hands of the release of The Assassin itself (which is being ably handled by Well Go USA; it’s already grossed close to double what Zhang Yimou’s arguably higher-profile Coming Home has), but has been buoyed by things like the Criterion Collection’s recent announcement that they’re releasing Edward Yang’s much-coveted and long-unavailable A Brighter Summer Day, the recent restoration of Tsai Ming-liang’s Rebels of the Neon God, and other various factors.
The Assassin is Hou’s first stab at a wuxia film, a traditional Chinese genre, which plays not unlike the samurai films of old from Japan; they’re essentially about masterless martial artists who fight on the side of righteousness. Movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, House of Flying Daggers, and Ashes of Time all fall into this category, to name a few of my personal favorites. But Hou is a director who generally can’t be bothered to follow genre conventions, and going into my first viewing of The Assassin I expected it to eschew action scenes altogether. It does not, and I was surprised by how effective the action scenes are as action scenes, but, all the same, they’re few and far between enough as to bore people who come only for those and nothing else.
The plot, which is based on a 1000+ year old story by Xing Pei called “Nie Yinniang,” is about the titular assassin (also named Nie Yinniang, here played by Chinese superstar Shu Qi), who was once betrothed to her cousin Tian Ji’an (another Chinese superstar, Chang Chen), a ruler of the stricken province of Weibo, where the film is set. As the film begins, we learn that Yinniang has been tapped to kill Tian Ji’an, and that’s basically it; an elegant, spare framework for which Hou can drape his incredible visual sensibility.
Here Hou is working with many of his usual collaborators, talented filmmakers all: Qi and Chen were both in Hou’s most recent Mandarin-language film, 2006’s Three Times, and Qi was in 2001’s Millennium Mambo prior to that. The cinematography is done by the great and hugely underappreciated (in the West, at least) Mark Lee Ping-bin, who is most memorably responsible for the non-Christopher Doyle sections of Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love, as well as works from many other East Asian masters (Kore-eda Hirokazu’s Air Doll, Tran Anh Hung’s Norwegian Wood, not to mention almost all of Hou’s best films, from Three Times to Flowers of Shanghai all the way back to 1985’s A Time to Live, A Time to Die). Production design is by Wen-ying Huang, who works almost exclusively with Hou, with whom he began his relationship on 1995’s Good Men, Good Women and has done most of his films since. And the mostly spare score is done by the pop superstar Lim Giong, who’s been working with Hou for about 20 years, both as a composer and as an actor (though he doesn’t appear as an actor in The Assassin).
If I haven’t made it clear already, the main reason to see The Assassin is because of its aesthetic beauty; I mean no slight against the story, but really, I can’t think of a more objectively beautiful film since the aforementioned In the Mood for Love. As such, don’t miss your chance to see it on the big screen—if you think you can get the full experience of this one on your stupid 42-inch HD TV, you’re wrong. | Pete Timmermann
The Assassin shows nightly at the Webster Film Series at 7:30 p.m. from January 15-24. For more information, visit the Film Series’ website or call (314) 968-7487.