The Assassin opens in monochrome on a pair of women: the master, all in white, and her apprentice, all in black. The apprentice takes a knife from her master’s hand. She prowls between sinuous trees, her form murmured only by the dappled shadows and ambient birdsong. Her steps quicken. She swings through the grove, bursts leaping into the sunlight. Her knife swipes through the neck of a man on horseback.
In an interview with Film Comment, director Hou Hsiao-Hsien describes a famous poem that became widespread during China’s Tang Dynasty. It tells of a king who kept an exotic peacock as a pet. When it refused to sing, he and the queen placed a mirror before it, hoping it would believe it had a companion to sing to. The peacock saw its reflection and began to sing at last, but in great sorrow and despair. It was found dead the next morning. The popular poem then became a metaphor for loneliness, deepest mourning, and the human self.
As the woman in black stalks through the grove, the trees stripe the frame like the bars of a cage. But I hadn’t caught on to that on my first viewing; she’d just looked so lovely in there.
The story of the assassin Nie Yinniang (played by the magnificent Shu Qi) unfolds during the Tang Dynasty of the 9th century. Born to a family of dignitaries in the governing palace of Weibo, she was spirited away at a young age by the Taoist nun Princess Jiaxin (Sheu Fang-Yi). Under Princess Jiaxin’s tutelage, Yinniang grew into an assassin beyond compare; she could cast spells, reach into the enchanted realm, and alight upon boughs without a sound. But whenever confronted with the families of her victims, Yinniang’s resolve to kill would waver. Seeking to crush these weaker sentiments, Princess Jiaxin sends Yinniang back to her family in Weibo with the climactic task of killing her cousin—once her childhood friend and fiancé, and now the lord of Weibo—Tian Ji’an (played by the virile Chang Chen).
In the film’s opening scene, Nie Yinniang is impressed upon us as a terror on earth. The monochromatic lens lends her black-clothed figure alarming invisibility in the desaturated shadows. When she strikes, the scratch of her blade through her quarry nicks our minds along its path. Overall, it is an introduction to her mythicality: with long black hair and a curved knife in her hand, Yinniang is striking and frightening in aura; she ghosts through the forests and fields, slicing across the daylight. Many women in movies have lingered in my mind, but few have haunted me the way this titular assassin does. She is dangerous though not sexualized, above the hubris and prestige of men. Her character evokes the immortality and aesthetic of a legend.
She is wonderful. There is nobody else like her.
I first saw this movie when I was a teenager, a time I remember in fragments. My memory is a perfect sieve; it has sifted out the bulk of those years, retaining only what has resonated. I remembered Nie Yinniang because there was so much about her to aspire to. She was beautiful and mysterious. Her powers left the world fearing. And in the end, she could leave everyone behind, and disappear.
I would say, from that first viewing, I remembered solely her reputation: humans were her toys, the universe her creation. I was also a different person then—carefree and careless, still mistaking the descent into my first depressive episode as a daydream of ascension. So it wasn’t until later that the rest of her began to mean something.
As in A City of Sadness, Hou favors pro-filmic atmosphere over complicated exposition. But in The Assassin, the past—though unseen or unspoken—strongly pervades Yinniang’s actions. The assassin must choose to kill her cousin or ultimately diverge from her master’s path—a fork that stems from the road she has thus travelled, as Yinniang also struggles to reconcile the brightness of her childhood with the isolation of her adulthood. Weibo’s ongoing political intrigue, however essential to the period, seems to bore her. She is a harbinger of death and upheaval. Yet she returns to Weibo as a daughter of the land, its dear, wayward child.
When Yinniang’s mother Nie Tian (Yong Mei, with grace) greets her daughter after over a decade of separation, she offers no greeting nor embrace, but rather speaks in recollection of the past. Wisely, Nie Tian seems to recognize the shape of the rift that sunders them. In Weibo, Yinniang doesn’t reunite with those who have missed her; she faces the emptiness of an aged home, the lost time without those she left behind. The same solemn understanding informs the performance of Nie Feng (Ni Dahong), Yinniang’s father. His first on-screen words to his daughter are thick with regret: “We should never have let them take you away,” he tells her, struggling to reconcile with his own memories.
So much of the film is spent on unfolding the past, and as it does, Yinniang unfolds with it. The reoccurring jade pieces that Tian Ji’an and Yinniang carry are leftover gifts from their childhood engagement; as their hands stroke over the jades in the present, the pieces are transformed. They are implications of bygone days, infused with joy and light. When she reunites with her jade piece in the film, Yinniang traces the texture of old time with her thumbs, recalling the worn sensation. The present is relative to the past, and loneliness to memory.There is only one flashback scene in this film. It appears sound-first, discontinuous from the previous scene where Yinniang sits in her bath. A lovely woman in carnation-pink sleeves kneels in the garden, her fingers stroking over the strings of a guzheng. Filmed on comparably fast stock, the grainy noise is off-putting at best—it feels, in fact, like she is already slipping from our grasp, the way a damaged reel threatens to crackle into darkness. The woman plucks the strings with masterful elegance, pauses, and recites the story of the king’s pet—a bluebird, in her version—who saw its reflection and sang the life out of its own body.
Then the woman and the garden disappear, and we are left aching, as if we have seen a ghost.
We don’t learn her name until later, when Yinniang reveals it in a slip of tenderness. This was Princess Jiacheng (also Sheu Fang-Yi, who plays both of Yinniang’s exemplars), Tian Ji’an’s mother. It was she who had engaged Yinniang to her son all those years ago; the twin jades they bear were her gift.
The close bond that existed between Yinniang and Princess Jiacheng is not explicitly disclosed, rather suggested by the sublimity of Shu Qi’s performance. In a farmer’s house with only two other people, Yinniang remembers the princess: “She herself was the bluebird. She left the court for Weibo all by herself. There was no one like her in all of Weibo.” For the first time in intimate close-up, we see Shu Qi’s face crease in bare grief. Her voice is soft and light, almost a whisper; gaze downcast, she fights to subdue the threat of tears. I hadn’t remembered this from my first watch, and seeing it now, I wonder how I could have thought that Yinniang condescended to humanity. With Princess Jiacheng’s image still lush in her mind, the assassin blooms on the screen, incandescent with mortal sorrow. Her loneliness is palpitant. She is sympathetic beyond belief.
Yinniang reminds me of the ways that memory can attack us, like quick strokes of sound. Regret is like this. Humiliation is like this. The mire of depression and other diseases often strips us of our memories, but the ones that we cling to ring through us all the louder. Memories of our most wounding moments flood through our hollows in ways we can’t control. There is a temporality to loneliness, and this Yinniang acknowledges with breathtaking vulnerability.
Cinematic representation matters. When we see ourselves on the screen, we rejoice; we are comforted by the mirror. For instance: I like movies with actors who are Asian-American women, who fight what I want to fight, whose lives play out with a touch of disquietude. This might be why I first liked Nie Yinniang.
But out of everything there is to represent, I have found—time and again—that I empathize most with indirect emotional expression.
I cried at the end of Arrival because of the gesture of Louise’s hand, curling delicately at the back of Ian’s neck. I can close my eyes and see A Brand New Life’s Jinhee, who dug a hole in the orphanage playground, climbed in, and buried herself. I laughed in delight at Boyd Crowder’s screaming car-ridden rage in Justified, and clutched the armrests during Blade Runner 2049, when Luv shed tears while crushing every bone in Lt. Joshi’s hand. What beautiful asynchronicity. What a way to tell us you’re alive.
Emotional expression just wants to be honest, I find. Open communication is not always so. On-screen it looks paradigmatically fun, but fantastical—dishonest to reality, even. So often we avoid directness out of shame, confusion, worry that the act of speaking an experience might reduce it. Instead we immerse ourselves in emotion, dyeing action and speech in its symbolizing colors. I have gone blank and smiling in the grip of fear, and danced my anger in the early morning. My joy broadened my arms with air. Looking back, time and again I have said “I love you” not out of any compassion, but as a ritualistic phrase, a code to tell my friends and family that we are not done with each other yet.
Realistic movies often speak this muted language, but The Assassin is unique, for it is the first movie I have seen that treats unspoken meaning as an art. The physicality of a feeling is not only vividly present; it is thick, deliberate calligraphy; poetry of varying shades for and from the human heart.Take Tian Ji’an’s relationship with his wife, which is taut with sanctimony and scorn. Lady Tian (Zhou Yun) is an opulent woman, composed, enigmatic, and passive-aggressive; all her wrath is in her smile. When Tian Ji’an realizes she was responsible for a lethal plot against his concubine Huji (Hsieh Hsin-ying), he storms into her waiting room, draws his sword, and lashes out on the nearby curtains. His slashes scrape out the breadth of his fury better than words ever could, and when he flings a flower pot to the floor, the sound of the shatter articulates the ugliness he must feel twisting inside of him. The sentinel camera remains still as Tian Ji’an storms the peripheral, allowing his whirlwind rage to blot like rich ink upon the pages.
But pain is the most desperate of our indirect articulations. It is especially damning for Yinniang, who has survived thus far without therapy or conversation. We see this when her mother reignites a hurting nerve by reminiscing about Princess Jiacheng; Nie Tian mentions that the princess had feared, near the end of her life, that she let Yinniang down. In the pause that follows, she looks to her dark-clothed daughter off-screen. The next cut shows that Yinniang is crying, head bowed, face pressed into a satchel. Her hands clutch at the back of the pouch in rigid desperation. Sobs shake her curled frame, though she smothers the sounds into whispers. She hides, censors, oppresses herself, flooded by pain that we can see is the very opposite of cathartic. This is the kind of pain we try to fight, like backwash against a wave, in an effort to salvage ourselves.
It is near impossible, I think, in words, to describe—from a place of profound betrayal—what it feels like to know that your loved one’s last wish was not to disappoint you. Instead, we see the nuance of Yinniang’s sorrow through her body as it curls into condensed heartache. It breaks more of my own heart with each watch. Too easily she reminds me of the appearance of my own grief—of the times since my teens when I have self-destructed in secret, been scraped raw by simple kindnesses, and smothered myself in bed with the lights out.
After Yinniang’s introductory kill, the film cuts to a quiet shot of an unnamed lord trying to pass his son—who can’t be older than 5 or 6—a small white butterfly. Their fingers meet at the center of the frame, brushing together ever so gently. The butterfly flutters off the son’s hand, lands briefly on his father’s beard, before flying up off-screen. The little boy cranes his head up in wonder. “Where is it going?” he asks, much to his parents’ amusement. Eventually he and his mother move on to rolling a toy ball back and forth, the boy scooting back with each pass as his father looks on in languid contentment. The entire take is a minute and 40 seconds long, and filled with nothing but peace.
A cut to the rafters of the ceiling reveals Yinniang’s vacuumous presence, her gaze fixated on the family below her. We can assume she’s been watching for some time, because when she drops down silently before the lord after trancing him into a doze, she makes no move for her knife. She only watches his dipping head, the way he cradles his sleeping son. In the end, she can’t kill this one.
Breaking from traditional wuxia myth, The Assassin is rich with scenes like this one; modestly emotional moments that humanize the 9th century. At the hour when Yinniang speaks of Princess Jiacheng, one of her company—an unnamed mirror polisher (Satoshi Tsumabuki)—rests an empathetic hand on her shoulder. It is, for all intents and purposes, an unnecessary gesture. Yet we are grateful for it, as the melancholic scene warms by the lingering shot on his touch—on heartfelt comfort applied to her anguish.
In another scene, Tian Ji’an wrestles playfully with his eldest son—a show of surprising charm from a character so quick-tempered. At the family’s later climax, when Tian Ji’an draws his sword on Lady Tian, it is the same eldest son who goes to stand, arms outstretched, before his mother. The motion is startling—an act of love, wisdom, and defiance all at once. Suddenly there is no confrontation, only a family positioned at the brink of devastation. Their son becomes the embodiment of love; he interjects where we wouldn’t expect, lowers our guard, weakens our impulse for brutality.
Yinniang’s world is a cruel one. Assassins and sorcerers have fearful dominion over the empire; lordships prevail by familicide and slaughter; men shoot and bury one another alive; women efface and fall prey to one another. Yet Hou and Lee paint Weibo in pale-bark forests and austere golden halls, wind sliding over the sheen on patterned sleeves, trails snaking through the auburn grain of the mountains. And just as the camera recognizes the splendor of nature, so too does it recognize characters at their best—at instances of their affection.Because to Yinniang, beauty is everywhere: in home, in family, in people and their companionship. So too there is grotesquerie, but Yinniang doesn’t care for it. She unfurls in yearning despite knowing what she has lost, yearns to hope despite knowing what can be lost still. She suffers alone and still sees the goodness in others. She does not retreat in defense of hatred. And it is the strength of love that emboldens the self—that which guides her to the top of the mountain where Princess Jiaxin awaits, where she cuts ties with her master, and walks back down alive.
The Assassin is a film that defies the notion of destruction. It has asked me what worth there is in my mirror, and these days, I remember Yinniang in the regality of her humanity, in all her weakness, in all her bravery. Since my first watch she has become, by her struggle and survival, someone who I have reconciled with being.
But in other ways, she is still who I want to be.
The second time I saw this film was sometime in college. My memories of this time are in longer takes now, though sorted achronologically by measures of fear. During the depression that burned through my teenage years, I’d met the worst of me, as one does; I’d served it awhile before leaving it behind for a brighter place. But some days I could feel it waiting for my faithful return, and that scared me more than anything. I couldn’t dare love much. My loneliness was physical, enveloping my body when nothing else was there to hold it.
Since then, every re-watch of The Assassin has felt like an embrace.
In the final scene, Nie Yinniang returns to the house in the farmlands. The mirror polisher sees her from afar and runs to greet her, overjoyed. They reunite at a distance where we can just barely catch a glimpse of Yinniang’s face. For the first time, she is smiling. The last shot shows the pair leaving Weibo through the open expanse of the fields—a far cry from the first scene’s locked, entrapping trees. They walk into the morning fog, towards the mountains and beyond. Once, the assassin’s departure had looked like some sort of ascending death. But I have learned that this movie loves Yinniang as much as I do.
It opens her cage. She is free.