Why might Hou Hsiao-Hsien want to make a wuxia film? The politics of much of his earlier work, as critiques of the social implications of mainland China’s annexation of Taiwan, appears immediately at odds with wuxia, a genre increasingly adopted by the popular recuperation of a historical-nationalist myth of China (and a rejection of the modernising aspirations of Mao’s Cultural Revolution). Stylistically, Hou’s affection for quiet and closed internal spaces also seems to sit uneasily with wuxia’s theatrics as a genre whose traits are common to each other by their flamboyance: delicately choreographed combat, ornamental costumes and interiors, and sublimely expansive panoramas of natural idyll.
The Assassin is the latest wuxia film to be made by a Chinese director better known for observing the people through whom urbanising China configures its boundaries; notably following Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster which screened at MIFF last year. Where The Grandmaster observes traditional genre tropes to craft an arena within which Kar Wai can enact his fixation at the internal lives of characters who face outwards, The Assassin positions itself as obverse. Zhang Yimou, best known to the West by epics House of Flying Daggers and Hero, fashions wuxia as a speculative cultural mythology that operates through beauty as a spectacle. Hou’s attendance to dutiful convention is teasing – it chimes off-key because its aim is elsewhere.
The Assassin resonates with the together reserved and enveloping style of Hou’s past work. It is filled largely with interactions whose dialogue and gestures are less relevant to the communication of information across characters and to the audience, than the spaces they frame, carve and so reveal. Martial combat is similarly muted and left utilitarian and unfurnished, action occurs quickly or not at all, the eponymous assassin flees and hesitates but never draws blood or life.
As Nie Yinniang, Shu Qi resists possession by any of the tropes female protagonists in wuxia typically embody – she acts as neither as an ambitious sharp-witted ingenue or self-sacrificing master, nor a queenly white-haired witch, or lover who painfully knows she cannot have her desires. She is a religious assassin sent by her master to her family’s homeland to eliminate her cousin; but she plays her circumstances apprehensively, so her movement guides the story with the necessities of doubt. Unlike Zhang Ziyi’s gymnastic rigour, Shu Qi never moves a gesture beyond its cusp, so she becomes like a ghost, that is a body made of steam who moves between and within spaces, fills their capacities and makes their form perceptible. Hou’s ghostly device is most clear when Nie Yinniang and her master mount a high peak; first a silence that carries Nie Yinniang’s inaction fills the scene, then a misty translucence floods into then erases her master and then herself.
The Assassin’s liminality lies chiefly in the lack of information or didactic punctuation it imposes. Led by characters who observe their own silence, The Assassin visually articulates the wordless sense of cultural loss that motivates the appeal of wuxia for Chinese audiences. Hou finds in the desire for information recovery, a compulsion to preserve the dying stories that form China’s cultural body (some exterminated, others sick from mistranslation), the desire for an aesthetic self-discovery or self-written narrative. By telling a disruptive non-narrative Hou separates wuxia from its employment into a universalised nationalism, so revealing the large absences and emptinesses which reside within mythologies of China, whose cultural identities involve endless tides of assimilation and appropriation. Information is scattered throughout the film for the viewer to collect: themes can be traced, but only in an insistently elusive manner, making the paths of semblance always different and thoroughly resistant to singular paraphrase. By exposing the immense amount of space within it, Hou expands the genre of wuxia in a magnificent manner.