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The Assassin: Hou Hsiao-Hsien's thrilling rejection of violence

Richard S He

Hou Hsiao-Hsien's The Assassin is the best Chinese film I've ever seen.

I was born to Chinese parents in Melbourne, 1990. Theirs is a classic immigrant story: Having grown up in Shanghai during the tumultuous Cultural Revolution, they were forced to give themselves the formal education Maoism denied; when the universities reopened in the late ’70s, they were the first back in. In the late ’80s, they boarded a plane to Melbourne, Australia, with fifty US dollars in their pockets. An assortment of minimum-wage jobs and engineering degrees later, the rest is history.

The Assassin is not a martial arts film. Better known for his slow, socially conscious dramas, Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s first film in seven years follows Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), an assassin in ninth-century China, who is given a target she doesn’t want to kill. Most wuxia – the epic martial-arts genre made famous by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – depict combat with balletic grace. The Assassin, though, is about the rejection of violence. Hou never depicts an exquisitely choreographed battle without cutting away mid-gesture, whether to the trauma of a victim, or to an entirely unrelated scene. Countless action and war films have trained us to crave the thrill of violence. Instead, Hou thrills us with its absence.

I don’t believe in enforced cultural values. In an ideal world, we would be defined by what we choose, not what we can’t: sexuality, gender identity, race. I despise nationalism. I barely identify with my Chinese heritage, or my Australian upbringing – but I would never deny them, either. My parents have always been extraordinarily supportive – nothing like the insidious ‘tiger mother’ stereotype. I did well in school; I dropped out of uni three times, and I’m still trying to spin that into some anti-establishment narrative. I can barely speak conversational Mandarin. I joke about having mixed-race children, but I’m terrified they’ll be born assimilated.

The Assassin’s language is almost purely visual; it’s no more dialogue-driven than Mad Max: Fury Road. I recognised only glimpses of its clipped, ancient Mandarin, but I feel like I would have understood the film completely without subtitles or sound. There is no language barrier; nothing is lost in translation. If there’s any distance, it’s cultural.

Wuxia films are nostalgia, a romantic fantasy of China at the height of its powers for a post-imperialist, post-communist, post-capitalist audience. Hou Hsiao-Hsien uses the skeleton of a martial arts film to articulate the deep void of cultural loss. We want Nie Yinniang to be a badass feminist warrior. Instead, she rejects the state, her religion, her family, her exceptional skill, to follow her own moral code. Hers is a profoundly lonely life. It’s what choosing to immigrate must feel like: progress, with the feeling that you’ve left just as much behind.

The Assassin isn’t a cold film. It’s populated by intensely emotional characters, who are so repressed they can barely communicate with words, actions or violence. They can only exchange glances. Most wuxia evoke dance, or opera, but the art form The Assassin most closely resembles is architecture. Buildings communicate through visual language; a palace’s ornamental, impractical design signifies wealth and power. We build structures to assert our humanity over nature, as proof to our descendants that we existed. The Assassin tells Nie Yinniang’s story as if it too was passed down through generations of Chinese whispers, losing the original narrative yet becoming more vivid with each retelling. Hou typically frames his characters from a distance, moving through China’s vast, untouched landscapes. He knows we’re just passing through.

Beijing’s imperial palace, the Forbidden City, was closed to outsiders for nearly five centuries. It’s now one of China’s biggest tourist destinations. Walking on its grounds is a profoundly strange experience – part sacrilege, part communing with one’s ancestors. I imagine all Chinese feel the same conflict. Few cultures were forced to modernise as violently as the Chinese, but Maoism turned out to be regression in the guise of revolution. So much was lost, and only an absence gained.

The Assassin feels like my equivalent to the likes of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, or Kendrick Lamar’s recent To Pimp a Butterfly. Those are monumental works of art that can awe anyone, but perhaps can only be lived by those who have lived blackness. On the other hand, it took two British-African men, in director Steve McQueen and actor Chiwitel Ejiofor, to make 12 Years a Slave – the true story of a free man sold into slavery, who felt like an outsider to both. A similar, inarticulable Chineseness infuses every fibre of The Assassin’s being. But only a Taiwanese man could have turned it into a parable about rejecting traditional Chinese values of authority.

The African-American cultural critic Touré says, “If there are 40 million black Americans, then there are 40 million ways to be black.” But the reverse is also true. If there are over 1.3 billion global Chinese, then there are 1.3 billion Chinese identity crises. Hou Hsiao-Hsien has made a film for all of us.

Maybe it’s because I so rarely think about my heritage that The Assassin shook me to my core. We spend so much time constructing our image, pretending we live in a post-racial society, and then a film comes and unravels it all at once.

The Assassin is the most Chinese film I’ve ever seen. It reminds me that I, too, am a work of fiction.

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