(image courtesy of the Producers)
The Assassin (Nie Yinniang) directed by HOU Hsiao-Hsien, Taiwan, 2015
Review by Cynthia Webb
In the recent Brisbane Asia-Pacific Film Festival, the stand-out film for me was Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s “The Assassin”, for which he won Best Director at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and five of the major awards at Taiwan’s Golden Horse Festival.
This is not just a film – this is a meditation on beauty, it’s a visual dream for the senses and the soul. It is allowing oneself to be absorbed into the ancient Chinese cultural traditions of painting and poetry, of the philosophy of The Dao. It is about concepts that today’s Western culture has no real equivalent of and perhaps no adequate words for. On screen I saw images similar to the ones in my book of Chinese traditional paintings of the last 200 years. (Such as these….. continue reading after the 2 photos)
Review Continued: This is a purely cinematic experience, because it’s all about the atmosphere, essence, and visual experience. The elements of nature are all-pervading– trees and grass moving in the wind, water, rocks, clouds and mist, smoke, fire, rain-forests, sunlight. To prioritise the visual , there is very little dialogue, and the acting style has been minimalized too.
The protagonist, Nie Yinniang is almost silent, inexpressive, and yet she is on high alert to her surroundings. She has been in the care of a Dao-ist Nun, after being separated from her family in the province of Weibo ten years earlier. The tale is set during the Tang Dynasty – (618-907 AD). She is the product of many long years of strict training in the arts of assassination, and she is supposed to have total control of her emotions as well as her body. The black-clad Yinniang moves like the shadow of destiny personified.
But Yinniang has failed in her first assignment, and now her strict white robed mentor is giving her one last chance, to make a life defined by the Way of the Assassins. She is sent back to her childhood home, to assassinate the powerful leader, Tian Ji’an, to whom she was once betrothed, and who is also her cousin.
The plot is simple, and it is also played down and not pressed upon the audience in the usual way. Everything is held in check, so that the visuals define the experience.
In the Q & A session after the film, the Director of Cinematography, Mark Lee Ping-Bing told the audience that actually they need not worry too much about the story because this work is all about the images, and the atmosphere. There is almost no music to distract us from the images either – only sometimes the beat of a hypnotic rhythm or the sounds of Nature.
For the images we obviously owe a lot to the Mark Lee Ping-Bing, – one of the greatest cinematographers working today. For me he must be included in the list of names such as Vittorio Storaro, Nestor Almendros, and Christopher Doyle, for the sublime beauty that they have brought to the screen.
Mark Lee Ping Bing (DOP) told us that the director had no storyboard, and almost no screenplay as a guide to work from.
“He never tells me what he wants, and I am the one who has to face up to him and find an idea that makes him happy. If he doesn’t like it he tells me so to my face. Making the entire film was very difficult, as we used natural lighting outdoors, with only one or two takes, and indoors we used only very little additional lighting to achieve our shots.”
He has known Hou Hsiao-Hsien for thirty years, and they have made ten films together so there is a lot of trust between them.
“Hou Hsiao-Hsien has thirty years of directing experience, and he doesn’t care much about the audience’s understanding of the stories. He cares about the films lasting for generations. The first movie I shot with him was in 1985, and money is still coming in from that film – from film school screenings, from creating the Blu-Ray version. They must be works of art and what counts is making a beautiful image,” explained DOP, Mark Lee Ping-Bing.
Shooting took place on the island of Taiwan, and the Art Director, Ding Yang Wong, and the Costume/Production Designer Wen-Ying Huang have joined with the DOP to bring us one of most exquisite films ever put onto celluloid.
“With my way of shooting everything is dangerous. We need to keep going. For example, the scene on the mountain with Yinniang and her Mentor, we couldn’t waste 35mm film, so we needed to begin shooting at the right moment, keeping an eye on the movement of the mist, so that we could finish the whole shot.”
There are some glorious indoor scenes in the palace of Tian Ji’an and his family – the deeply saturated rich colours are mesmerizing, with scenes of dancing women, and filmy silken drapes. Sometimes the camera is hiding behind those fine gauze curtains and peeping at the life of the family or suspiciously watching the Queen’s behavior. Is it her, the mysterious golden masked warrior who confronts Yinniang in the bamboo?
Yinniang realizes that to kill the Lord Tian Ji’an would throw the kingdom into chaos, because his children are still so young, or perhaps she still has familial affection? Although she could have carried out her task, she begs her Mentor for mercy and even briefly fights with her, when her answer comes: the way of the sword is merciless.
Scattered throughout this film, were many direct visual references to King Hu’s “A Touch of Zen”, from the 1970s, a newly restored version of which was also screened in the Brisbane Asia Pacific Film Festival the day before I saw its inheritor, “The Assassin”. That was a big help in having deeper appreciation of the new film.
There is a small group of films which are legend in the annals of cinematography, that includes Days of Heaven, In the Mood for Love, Barry Lyndon, The Last Emperor, The Sheltering Sky, and now we must add The Assassin.
If you love art and beauty, you must see “The Assassin” on the big screen – and you will learn the denouement for Yinniang and Tian Ji’an.
“The Assassin” is Taiwan’s official entry into the Academy Awards, for March 2016.
Text by Cynthia Webb – copyright 3 December 2015
A painting by Liu Lingcang, entitled “A great poet – Li Bai, 701-762 AD (Tang Dynasty). Note – this is the era of the setting of the story in the film “The Assassin”.