American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
After a brief detour to pick up the Best Director award at Cannes earlier this year, "The Assassin," the eagerly awaited historical martial arts epic from renowned Chinese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien, has finally arrived on our shores and it is indeed a curious experience. The story is told in such an enigmatic manner that even with the voluminous notes that I took during the screening, I remain somewhat confused by certain plot points. On the other hand, conventional and easy-to-follow narratives can be found anywhere, but very few of them occur in films that are as visually ravishing and formally graceful as what Hou has cooked up here.
Set in ninth-century China during a time of unrest that would eventually lead to the decline of the Tand Dynasty, "The Assassin" tells the story of Nie Yinniang (Shu Qui), who was kidnapped by her family when she was only 10 by Jiaxin (Sheu Fang-yi), a nun who trained her to become a brutally efficient assassin specializing in killing corrupt government officials. As the story begins, she demonstrates her abilities by killing her target—a man on horseback—with such lethal precision that it takes both her victim and viewers of the film a few moments to register that the deed has been done. Alas, Yinniang is not quite as ruthless as she seems to be, and when she confronts her next target and finds his young son in the room with him, she finds that she is unable to do the deed and lets him live.
This act of mercy sends Jiaxin into a rage, and she devises a plan that she believes will force Yinniang to do her duty and divest her of the sympathy that caused her to fail her previous mission. Yinniang is sent to Weibo, the largest province and one where the Imperial Court is currently of an unstable nature, to kill the governor, Lord Tian Ji'an (Chang Chen), and plunge the region into chaos. This is a bit tricky for Yinniang because not only is Lord Tian her cousin, it is revealed that before her disappearance, she was supposed to one day marry him in a union that would have helped bring lasting peace between the region and his court. Of course, Yinniang cannot bring herself to kill Lord Tian, though she does perform a series of brief ambushes designed to alert him to her presence. At the same time, Lord Tian dismisses his right-hand man, Xia Jing (Juan Ching-tian) from the court because of his outspoken nature and it is Xia's reaction to this that turns out to be the spark that incites the battles to come.
Instead of rushing through the plot-oriented material in order to get to the action, Hou allows the story to reveal itself in a deliberately slow and occasionally digressive manner that prefers having characters recount their stories directly, rather than streamlining the plot threads with flashbacks and other tricks. For those not used to this manner of storytelling, especially in the context of what is supposed to be a martial arts narrative, "The Assassin" may prove to be bewildering. That said, it should be stressed that the story is confusing but not confused, and my guess is that it will make a lot more sense upon a second viewing.
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