You know me (perhaps): I’m not someone to let a little thing like subtitles or a different cultural sensibility get in the way of my checking out a new movie. Especially at an awkward time of year like this one, with the Oscar bait still floating around but the big crowd-pleasers of the year still firmly under wraps (first off the blocks looks to be hmm-well-let’s-see Zach Snyder’s attempt to not mess up multiple classic characters simultaneously in Batman Vs Superman). Honestly, this is the second week in a row I’ve ended up going to see a subtitled Asian movie simply because there was nothing else on that seemed interesting (the annoying absence of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies from central Oxford cinemas persists).
However, where The Monkey King 2 was a rare example of a mainstream Chinese blockbuster landing a British release, Hou Hsaio-Hsien’s The Assassin is the kind of film you’re more like to come across: which is to say that it’s a Chinese-Taiwanese co-production, much feted by film festivals, and very comfortable in the world cinema/arthouse slot it’s currently showing in.
I have to say that the various accolades The Assassin has picked up were less interesting to me than the fact this is on some level a kung fu movie, and even that was secondary to the appearance in the title role of the actress Shu Qi, who is of course best known in the west for her unforgettable (and that’s putting it mildly) English-language performance in the timeless classic that is The Transporter (she is the one of ‘He brew up your car! He brooned down your house!’ fame).
So, along we trotted to the arthouse cinema where The Assassin was showing, arriving very early to be sure of getting good seats (no allocated ticketing), feeling oddly reassured by how popular the showing proved to be (well, the movie only showed once all week, and even then the small screen at the Phoenix wasn’t full up).
The film started – lovely, black and white photography to start with. A brief set of captions explaining the details of Chinese internal politics at the time when the film is set. Two women talking, one of them instructs the other (it is Shu Qi) to kill a man of low character and despicable history. She obliges, but refuses a second killing as there were children in the vicinity. Her mentor is obviously displeased.
And at this point I’m just going to give up and confess that for most of the rest of the film I did not have the slightest clue what was going on. All right: so the story is about a young noblewoman named Yinniang, who has been trained by a nun-princess (according to the subtitles, anyway) to become the most lethal killer in the land. Tensions are high between the Imperial Court and the semi-autonomous province of Weibo, possibly because someone is stirring up trouble between them.
But that is literally all I can tell you with any confidence. The film is meticulous in its composition, its cinematography, its production values, and its art direction. But it is also meticulous in not going out of its way to let the audience know what’s going on, how the various different characters are connected, what anyone’s agenda is, and what it all means.
As a result I found the film totally baffling (but still quite gorgeous to look at). Fight scenes come and go, characters appear and disappear, but for me it was never in danger of resolving into anything resembling a coherent narrative. I’m sure there was one – there are bits of what are clearly important exposition, but bereft of a meaningful context they are even more perplexing than the rest of the movie. At one point we see a new character practising martial arts while wearing a golden mask. This seems to have no connection to the rest of the plot. Later on the same character turns up to fight Yinniang: they clash briefly, then abruptly walk away from each other and – as far as I could tell – the masked fighter doesn’t appear in the rest of the movie. Some odd Chinese voodoo features near the end, seemingly out of a clear sky.
I suppose it may just be that this film is based on a story as famous in China as, say, that of Robin Hood is in the UK, and the film assumes a level of familiarity which I simply don’t possess. It doesn’t alter the result, though, which is utter mystification.
You know how it’s much, much easier to remember even quite a long phrase in your own language, than even a short one in one you don’t speak at all? Without the benefit of comprehension, it’s much harder to engage with and remember something. Well, it’s the same with The Assassin: totally unable to follow the story, I found myself slipping into something rather like a Zen trance, enjoying the craftsmanship of the film but not intellectually connecting with the story at all. This was maybe not the film to see at the end of a heavy week, because I had to struggle quite hard to stay awake. At least I succeeded: snores were drifting around the cinema before the end as one of my fellow audience members failed in their own struggle with Morpheus.
I feel I should point out that this doesn’t even feel much like a traditional kung fu film: there are various fights, and they are as impeccably staged as the rest of the film, but they are also brief and understated: you don’t get the big set piece battles of, say, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon in this film.
Do I have to reserve judgement on The Assassin? Well, partly, I expect. It’s a lovely looking film, the acting is not obviously awful, and it has clearly been made with enormous care and skill. But, as I said, I didn’t have a bloody clue what was going on throughout. I’m not sure if that was my fault or the script’s, or simply the result of cultural differences, but it did impact on my enjoyment of the film. So there you go. It looks nice, but my favourite Shu Qi movie hasn’t changed.