Hou Hsiao-Hsien

Film: The Assassin
Director: Hou Hsiao-Hsien

An assassin finds that she no longer wishes to kill.

We first see the assassin, Yinniang, as she is commanded by her master to kill a man. “His guilt condemns him.” We watch her sneak up on him as he rides a horse: one instant he is sitting erect, the next he is cut down. The horse runs on as he slumps over. The scene is shot in black and white, as if to capture the austerity of her calling, the pitilessness of the “way of the sword.”

Yinniang is ordered again to kill. She approaches her target, finds him with a child on his lap. She cannot kill him, and leaves. When confronted by her master, she says that she could not kill in front of the child. Her master scolds her, says she lacks resolve. So far as we know, this is true: it is the child who stayed her hand. That is to say, not an inner decision but something external that overpowers her will, which is a will to kill, to follow the way of the sword.

Her master orders her to kill again, her own cousin this time (Tian Ji’an), to whom she was once betrothed. Besides the emotional ties, there are delicate political factors in play, an unstable alliance between Weibo (ruled by Tian Ji’an) and a neighboring power that threatens to be disrupted if she carries out her assignment. This is the reason she gives to her master when she returns, the deed once more undone: the time was not right to kill him, for it would plunge Weibo into chaos.

Such is her explicit reasoning, but it is a paper-thin veneer over the reality: she no longer desires to kill. She does not wish to be an assassin. And indeed, looking back, this applies even in the second case, only she had not realized it. The film is thus the coming to consciousness of this unconscious shift. She was an assassin; now she is not. The first time, the excuse may be believed, and treated as a weakness. The second time, it falls away. She cannot fool herself twice.

The film, it is said, disdains plot. That is untrue. The plot is both clear and strictly followed, but it concerns Yinniang’s internal development. The external plot—her past, the political tensions in China at that time, and so forth—matter only insofar as they contextualize this internal development, and not in their own right. They are brought in only so far as is necessary to make clear her state of mind.

It is a triumph of the film that her inner life is made clear without reliance on the usual indicators. Her face is generally impassive. She speaks little. There are no voiceovers to let us know her thoughts. No, there is only the camera, delicately hovering, drifting, capturing those moments that reveal to us what matters of the world in which Yinniang exists and comes to know herself.

Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin is a film I will remember.