The film begins in black and white. A parade moves slowly by on horseback, and to the woods at their side stands an assassin and her master. This epic and yet claustrophobic and contained film obsesses over deep layers of tree branches twisted over each other, towering mountain walls with gaping caves at their roots, sheer mossy cliffs, miles of grassland stretching away, hills rising up in the misty distance as the gradient slowly pales.
Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s 2015 historical martial-arts film won him Best Director at Cannes and has become infamous for its stunning use of 35mm film in what can only be described as one of the most meticulously designed films of the last ten years. Loosely based off of a 9th Century Chinese tale, it tells of an assassin tested by her master in a task to kill the man she was once in love with.
In this opening sequence, the girl becomes a shadow as she moves through the trees. She doesn’t say a word, but moves to the head of the parade, and slits the man’s throat, even the film itself silent apart from a horse’s whinny and wind in the trees. Those who have watched a lot of Asian cinema will be familiar with this contrast of motions; a stillness in a frame that is so alive with movement. Long pauses on leaves moving in the trees; slow processions of people interrupted by the swift entrance of a hero. The assassin is Yinniang, and her skills from this point on have already been brutally demonstrated.
But she is more than a killing machine. On her second task, she soundlessly jumps to the ground before a man with a sleeping child in his arms. Without any names or context past the opening epitaph, it doesn’t matter who this man is, or what status he holds. All we see a man on the floor with a fearsome assassin standing above him. And when he wakes, Yinniang just walks away. She is followed, and when the man aims a sword directly at her spine she effortlessly spins and deflects it without a whisper, before disappearing again.
Having failed in her task, her master (also a woman) challenges her resolve in punishment and sends her to Weibo, her childhood home, to kill her cousin to which she was once betrothed. Suddenly we are in colour, on a sunrise reflected in a river. Silhouetted trees decorate the line of the frame and a blood red title fades onto the screen. Upon arriving back in Weibo, we are told the story of a songless bluebird, and a queen that suggests placing it before a mirror so it will sing to its own kind. ‘When the bluebird saw its own reflection it sang of its sadness, it danced until it expired’.
The film echoes with these little tales, from the period aesthetic to the poetic dialogue. They say Yinniang ‘stayed in the forest, like a phoenix’ when she was a child. She is almost mythologised, made into a saint in the way that they talk about her. For a Western audience it feels like a fairy tale, and the genre in which The Assassin defines itself has a very similar place in Chinese fiction as fairy tales do in European culture.
Wuxia – literally meaning ‘martial heroes’ – is a Chinese genre of fiction that explores traditionally fantastical martial artists in ancient China. These heroes rarely serve an organisation or fit into the class system, but proceed in their missions through an unspoken code of xia – what a Western audience could probably compare to a knight’s code of honour – whether it be dispatching corrupt politicians for the good of the many or righting their own personal misdeeds. Interestingly, for the most part, it offers a reasonably balanced view of its male to female martial heroes; several of the staple ‘fairy tales’, including what The Assassin is based off of, feature female heroines at the heart of their narrative.
Yinniang’s combat is effortless, graceful, unyielding. She is a wraith in a black robe, even when facing her ex-betrothed, regardless of her gender. After first revealing herself to him, Lord Tian follows her up to the roof, dressed in white and she in black, and thrusts his sword all which ways around her. But she barely as she dodges, deflects, darts in and strikes between his attacks and pushes him way, eyes locked unflinchingly on his. Her skill is undeniable. The fact that it isn’t questioned honestly catches me off guard as a viewer. I’m so used to female warriors not being taken seriously or having to prove themselves before they’re accepted, but Yinniang is a real threat without hesitation. And she knows it too.
Often, she appears when others are asleep. Soundless. When she cries, she hides her face and does so silently. Yinniang is a ghost, talked about more than she is seen, but she always seems to be present, shown with a cutaway to a room’s rafters, or revealed behind layers of gauze that shift with the wind to obscure her again. She seems to have so little control over her own identity, furthered when we are told she was kidnapped as a child and trained as an assassin. And yet she has an enormous amount of agency in the stories, balancing the fate of Weibo in her hands. But she seems absent from the situation she weighs the scales of.
Arguably the film isn’t about Yinniang at all, but the politics around her: the careful balance of peace and chaos she must choose between. So, what does that mean for her? There is undeniably a problem with silent heroines in that they aren’t given agency through speech (which is an extension of intelligence and thought). But, let’s for a second think of Yinniang as a character who holds physical power in a female body, in a world that is visibly controlled by men in the film; an emperor and many provinces trying to free themselves of his hold (somewhat) peacefully.
And when we think about the themes of wuxia, Yinniang is a character who has a moral compass and honour, despite pressure being put on her to do otherwise. She spares a man for his child, she hesitates in her mission to kill her past lover. We are told that she stayed at Tian’s side years before when he is gravely ill. A farmer remarks that she keeps her promises and calls her trustworthy. What a thing to say of an assassin, and maybe that’s the point.
We might think of wuxia as myths or folklore, history made magical and epic, legendary figures drawn out of proportion but struggling with the same feats of human experience as we do. So maybe Yinniang’s silence isn’t unacceptable in that way – the heroines (and heroes too) were often wordless, nameless, formless. They performed their heroics only in their actions and choices, silently defined by their physical prowess and morality. Actions speak louder than words. For me, having a heroine who acts heroically is, at the current point the industry stands at, better than one claiming she does and then defers to the nearest man at the first hurdle.
But you can’t properly judge feminist representation if you’re only looking at the main character – the person who can so easily become the exception to the rule. When Yinniang first arrives home she is told the story of Princess Jiacheng, who was sent by the emperor to Weibo to marry but dismissed the escorts sent with her before she arrived, providing them with her silks and gold so that they could be free. ‘Since then, the court is the court and Weibo is Weibo. The princess implemented that decisive break’. The Assassin shows women changing what is expected of them, finding power in this, and being acknowledged for it, almost like it’s being passed down as an heirloom.
In one of her rare lines of dialogue, Yinniang says that the bluebird in the earlier story was in fact this princess who left court for Weibo by herself. The bluebird’s story is told to us in a widescreen format (unlike the rest of the film), in bright colours and what I can only interpret as a memory. So early in the film, we know little of Yinniang, so it is as if the story is being directly told to the audience rather than an attentive child just out of frame. In long ago eras before women had the right to vote, before social media allowed us to share our experiences, before we could see ourselves represented on a screen, women sharing stories with one another was the way they survived. This was a story told to Yinniang as a child, and now it is being told to us.
To preserve the fine balance of political peace, Yinniang returns to her master at the end of the film and declares, ‘I chose not to kill him’. Having been a silent wraith, she now chooses another option. In the end, she finds her own way, escorting a mirror-polisher across the country, and walking for literally minutes of screen time across a field and into the mists at the bottom of the mountains. She may be silent, but she resolves to have agency both in the task she was set and, more importantly, over herself.
by Daisy Leigh-Phippard
Daisy is studying film production at Arts University Bournemouth with the aspiration of becoming a director and screenwriter. If you can’t find her lost between the shelves of a bookshop you might be able to see her in a dark cinema if you squint hard enough. A lover of independent and foreign film with female perspectives, her favourites include Pan’s Labyrinth, The Handmaiden, Frida and anything that has ever come out of Hayao Miyazaki’s brain. You can see her work on thedaisydeer.wordpress.com, and find her general ramblings as @thedaisydeer at Twitter, Letterboxd and Instagram.
Categories: Anything and Everything