Last May, when Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien (侯孝賢) won “Best Director” at the Cannes Film Festival for his wuxia film “The Assassin” (《刺客聶隱娘》), my interest was immediately piqued.
As an avid martial artist, I wanted to watch a martial arts film that was highly praised by international film critics, especially since it had been produced by a Taiwanese director. I immediately began looking up information about the film and found that “The Assassin” is an adaptation of the old Tang Dynasty tale about Nie Yinniang (聶隱娘), a legendary female assassin who allegedly defeated several other assassins with her unparalleled martial arts prowess. Director Hou focuses on the inner conflict that Nie Yinniang experiences when she is ordered to kill her childhood sweetheart, which sounded like a suspiciously cliche storyline, but I had faith in Director Hou’s renowned abilities and the refined tastes of the international film critics who awarded him “Best Director”. Despite weeks of constant searching, however, I couldn’t find any information about when, if ever, the film would be screened publicly and whether the film would be released in the US.
Finally, when I returned to Taiwan in August to visit family, I found out that “The Assassin” would be released in Taiwan on August 28. I immediately asked my cousins to take me to watch the movie, so, on August 29, the day before my flight back to the US, I went with some relatives to the Taoyuan TaiMall to watch the long-awaited film.
I enjoyed the film’s rich colors, and I was intrigued by how the focus and positioning of the camera and lighting were manipulated to simulate the viewpoint of an assassin in the shadows and how several scenes indirectly suggested Nie Yinniang’s presence without explicitly showing her in the viewframe. There was surprisingly little martial arts choreography (with all the fight scenes combined comprising about only ten minutes of the 105 minute film), but, as someone who has fought in several sparring matches, I really appreciated how the fight choreography was realistic and did not involve impractical, flashy movements or gore. Characters struggled to climb onto roofs instead of effortlessly flying through the air, and they fought to kill as quickly as possible with graceful yet extremely efficient movements that did not waste any energy with unnecessary flourishes. Although the martial arts choreography in “The Assassin” is not as stylized as the choreography in other martial arts films, such as “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (1999), I found it just as enjoyable to watch precisely because it was so economical and did not involve excessive added sound effects or unrealistic wire work.
Unfortunately, neither the beautiful images nor the well-choreographed fight scenes could distract me from the extremely slow pace of the movie. Additionally, the disjointed storyline, in which new scenes often appeared to be unrelated to previous scenes, didn’t explicitly explain characters’ motives, give background information, or clarify the relationships between different characters. Instead, it gave only a vague outline that audience members had to struggle to fill in for themselves. The slow, ambiguous style of the film bewildered me and made me constantly wonder when the real action would start, so, when the credits began rolling, my relatives and I sat in stunned silence for a few moments before my uncle swore loudly and yelled, “What, that’s it?! That’s the last time we’re listening to foreign film critics!”
I shared my relatives’ disappointment, to put it mildly. I had tried extremely hard to keep an open mind throughout the movie, consciously forcing myself to be patient and to not make any premature judgements, but, as the theater lights came back on, I couldn’t help but feel let down, especially after three months of built-up anticipation. I had expected such a highly acclaimed film to be, at the very least, understandable. Whatever those film critics had seen in “The Assassin” was so abstract that I simply couldn’t grasp it, no matter how hard I tried. Maybe, as my cousin joked as we got up from our seats, “our tastes aren’t refined enough and we’re just too dumb.”
As we began trailing out of the theater, though, my relatives and I immediately burst into rapid-fire questions. So how exactly was that character related to Nie Yinniang? Why was she even taken away from her family to be raised as an assassin in the first place? And just who was the lady in the golden mask and what the heck did she have to do with anything? Engrossed in intense discussion during the entire trip back home, we spent the rest of the evening reading reviews of the film, looking up the original Tang dynasty tale, trying to figure out the relationships between various characters, and speculating about the characters’ motives and mindsets. It wasn’t until the next morning, when my uncle found the following video by Taiwan Bar, that we finally understood the historical context of the film and several plot points that we had been heatedly debating the night before:
The video not only cleared up most of my confusion, but also prompted me to start thinking about what defines “a good film”. As much as I enjoy fast-paced, intriguing plotlines and flashy action scenes, I realized that these elements are over-emphasized in modern Hollywood films, which focus on straightforward stories that don’t require or provoke much contemplation.
This is especially true in martial arts films, in which martial arts are often misrepresented and cheapened in order to sell thrills to the masses. Comedic martial arts films, such as “Drunken Master” (1978) and “The Forbidden Kingdom” (2008) are undeniably entertaining but rely almost exclusively on slapstick comedy and flashy effects and fight scenes, thus failing to acknowledge the mental and philosophical aspects of martial arts. Although “Ip Man” (2008) and other historical martial arts films are more thought-provoking due to their substantial and often inspiring messages, these films still rely heavily on extensive fight choreography and action-packed plot lines, which seem to have become the cookie-cutter gold standard for martial arts films. This overly heavy focus on the physical aspects of martial arts in media has resulted in an inauthentic representation of martial arts that lacks depth and easily gets stale.
Popular culture highly romanticizes martial artists, particularly assassins, by portraying them as mysterious, reclusive, emotionless killers. In contrast, “The Assassin” presents them in a more realistic, well-rounded light by focusing on their feelings and mentalities, a facet that is not really explored in films, video games, or other forms of media. By removing conventional film elements (such as extensive action scenes and a fast-paced, riveting plot), Director Hou forces viewers to instead focus on the mental and emotional turmoil that Nie Yinniang faces when her sense of duty conflicts with her conscience and personal emotions. “The Assassin” explores Nie Yinniang’s struggle to reconcile these opposing forces, helping viewers to realize that assassins were, in fact, real people who must have constantly experienced this inner conflict between duty and their own humanity and who must have also struggled with the effects of their decisions on society around them.
When I found out that “The Assassin” would have a brief theatrical run in the US, I jumped at the second chance to challenge my “unrefined tastes” and figure out exactly why the film was so highly praised by critics. I armed myself with a general understanding of the overall storyline by watching the Taiwan Bar video several times before going to watch “The Assassin” again in NYC; to my immense surprise, I loved the film the second time around. Instead of struggling to understand the plotline, I really enjoyed picking up on several very subtle, enriching details scattered throughout “The Assassin”, so much so that I ended up watching the film yet again before buying my own copy. I’ve found that Director Hou’s disjointed, ambiguous storytelling style actually allows me to gradually discover numerous interweaving layers of the extremely nuanced storyline. Even now, after having watched “The Assassin” a total of four times, I continue to uncover deeper complexities in the storyline each time I watch the film and discuss it with others. A conventional, straightforward storytelling style that seeks to explicitly explain every single detail would not have done justice to the subtleties in the characters’ motivations and mentalities, and it would not have been nearly as thought-provoking. Now, whenever I watch martial arts films, I am acutely aware of how heavy-handed the fight scenes are and am even more deeply impressed by Director Hou’s ability to convey complexity using minimal concrete detail.
As Director Hou stated in an interview, having a strict story structure is “only one of the many ways of telling a story: there are hugely different ways of filmmaking in world cinema. […] A good film is when you continue your imagination [of it] after seeing it.” “The Assassin” is certainly very thought-provoking, and it presents an eye-opening, interesting challenge to enjoy a film for reasons other than its plot, action scenes, or other trademark elements of the popular Hollywood film style. Although “The Assassin” is definitely not suited to everyone’s tastes, it is nevertheless worth seeing because it demonstrates the power of understatement, redefines the martial arts film genre, and challenges the conventional Hollywood film format.
Clips from the movie: