Killing Him Softly: The Assassin

30UNDER4The Assassin
Directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien
Opens October 16

“Of course a woman always seems to choose, with a dismaying instinct, the god-damndest moments to end a love affair. Her dismissals always seem to come the way assassinations do, from the least expected quarter.” —In Love, Alfred Hayes

For romantic torment, it’s hard to beat the premise of The Assassin: A princess, abducted as a youth and trained to kill, is ordered to dispatch the man she was once supposed to marry. As she shadows her now-powerful prey, whisper-quiet on elegantly appointed palace grounds, it’s as if she’s stalking her own memories. And for realizing that kind of atmosphere, the past sighing within the present, there can be no better filmmaker than Hou Hsiao-hsien, who renders this Tang Dynasty tale with gorgeous beauty and a time-suspending sense of presence that I am quite frankly at a loss to explain fully.

Hou adapts a wu xia story, part of an ancient Chinese tradition of warrior chronicles usually pressed into service for martial-arts action. Wong Kar Wai (The Grandmaster) and Jia Zhangke (Touch of Zen) are two auteurs who precede him in putting their stamp on a film genre more associated (wrongly or not) with speed, impacts, and good-guy-bad-guy showdowns. From a black-and-white prelude showing Nie Yinniang—the assassin (and the original Chinese title)—leaping up to slash a target who is on horseback, Hou shows he can cut as sharply and thrillingly as anyone. Yet it’s over in a few blinks of the eye: such will be the rhythm of The Assassin, which prizes anticipation over chaotic action throughout.

Nie (Shu Qi) haunts her central governor target, Lord Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen), more than she hunts him, but she’s a silent, observing ghost, not one who mourns for paths not taken. Shu has collaborated before with Hou, appearing in period dress as an object of contemplation in a segment of Three Times and living through modern anomie in Millennium Mambo. Here, serious and focused with an exquisitely restrained sadness, she’s a trimly robed figure in the shadows (or the rafters) of the luxuriantly decorated rooms and walkways of the governor’s residence. In interviews, Hou likes to mention scouring India and South Korea for the right silk to fashion curtains that catch the light just so, and every image in Mark Lee Ping Bin’s cinematography, both interiors and the stunning landscapes, is a world of its own—a glowing miracle of texture, light, fabric, framing, and timing. The color alone (red, gold, mists on a mountain) glows, is oxygenated.

Nie’s mission, already complicated, is soon made even more so by political intrigue that introduces another kink to the action. There’s even a thoroughly spooky magus of some sort, though Hou’s elliptical narrative makes The Assassin a film where you’re not so much hanging on the next twist as you are keeping the plot in mind as another line in the harmony, not always in the foreground. Speaking of which, Lim Giong’s score curls dizzyingly round the action, leading up to a fierce needle-drop track for the Western-esque final shot. Perhaps it’s fair to say that The Assassin does pack a punch (and a slash) after all, as the most beautiful and transcendent film of the year.

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