The Assassin dir. Hou Hsiao-Hsien

The poor women of Weibo can’t catch a break. Huji, Governor Tian’s favorite concubine, gets pregnant and becomes the target of a sorcerer’s campaign headed by her chief rival, the governor’s wife Lady Tian. Lady Tian, despite having given her husband three sons and a life of devotion, can’t quite get his undivided attention. And finally The Assassin herself, Yinniang, is torn between her métier and her conscience.

Much has been written (and rightly so) about the sumptuous and mysterious elegance of Mr. Hou’s latest (see The New York Times, and The Guardian, to start). The film is Taiwan’s entry for the 2016 Foreign Language Oscar and has earned Mr. Hou a Best Director award at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. But I was particularly interested in the ways in which the film’s most powerful women wield their power. For while they have the outward manifestations of power—whether by virtue of martial skill, rank, or courtly influence—this Tang dynasty narrative is necessarily within a structure of male governance. The assassin (a riveting Shu Qi), whose commanding physical presence and sureness of movement reminds us of a wolf in the forest, clearly does not recoil from violence. However, her broken betrothal to a cousin she barely knows (yet loves) shatters her will to complete her martial arts training. The matrimonial machinations of a patriarchal government who uses women to keep the peace overrides her singular strength in daily combat (though there are several satisfying scenes where she annihilates whole groups of men). The other powerful women at court, while considerably political and wily, still have to move beautifully within the confines of a structure not of their own making. The exception to the rule, the nun-princess who trains the assassin, most deliberately lives and works outside the system, perched on a rocky mountaintop like a white wolf.

But the thrust of this film is not for the narrative nor even a commentary on the balance of power but rather in the feeling of an excellent wuxia story (the director has been reading wuxia novels since his childhood). In addition to the gorgeous mise-en-scène of which much has been written, I will add the notable and relative quiet of this film. There are few and subtle instances of martial drums; the dominant soundtrack is the sound of birds, night insects, wind through the trees, and curtains moving in the late afternoon. This gives us a certain emotional and primal access to film which is set so far in the past and in an almost-mythical place so far away.

The Assassin (Nie Yinniang), dir. Hou Hsiao-Hsien, 104 mins. Spot Films, Sil-Metropole, et al.In Mandarin.