The three black and white sequences that comprise the first eight minutes of “The Assassin” are taken from the opening paragraphs of Xing Pei’s classic short story, “Nie Yinniang.” What follows is purely the invention of director Hou Hsiao-Hsien and his screenwriters. In the tale, the nun who has raised and trained Yinniang in the art of assassination sends the girl home after she fails to carry out a mission, completing her education by instructing her in how to proceed if such an occasion arises in the future. The tale then continues with Yinniang’s further adventures. In the film, the nun punishes Yinniang for her weakness in not completing her mission by sending her home to assassinate a cousin to whom she had previously been betrothed.
The movie tells us only that the young girl was given to the nun, and that now they wonder if that were such a wise thing to do. In the tale, they are given no choice. The witchlike nun threatens to steal the child if she is not willingly handed over. There is a long history of China’s hostility toward foreign religions taking root in Chinese soil. It was in 845 CE, roughly the period during which “The Assassin” takes place, that Tang Emperor Wuzong’s anti-Buddhist persecution was at its most extreme. It was believed that the lure of the monastic life was destroying family loyalty, and that the Buddhist philosophy was undermining the Taoist aim of harmonizing oneself with the laws of nature.
The film’s primary theme is the question of identity, exploring the contradictions between the way we see ourselves versus the way we are seen by others. Yinniang’s self image has been manipulated by the lies, betrayals, and expectations of her guardians. As a child, she was betrothed to Tian Ji’an, who she believed was of royal blood, but turns out to have been the son of a concubine. She is jealous of his wife, until she realizes he does not love her, but is instead in love with one of his concubines, who is now secretly pregnant with his child. When Yinniang was given to the nun, the new identity she inhabited was that of a martial arts master trained to assassinate corrupt officials. She failed in this on two levels. First, because she could not subordinate her own moral judgments to those of her master, and second because she could not deny her essential Chinese nature which was life affirming and in harmony with nature, as opposed to the heartless transcendence of her Buddhist master. When she is sent home from the monastery, she is perceived by her family members as an assassin sent by her master to kill Tian Ji’an. Although this is true, she sees herself in a more complex way, and her actions were subject to the harmonization of all things according to the Tao. In the end, she proves to be a simple, trustworthy girl, whose idea of self is in harmony with the way she is perceived by others.
After watching Hou’s film, I immediately wanted to see it again. Seldom has the act of watching a film been so pleasurable. The scenes are so sublimely directed that I didn’t want to let go of them. When I look back on the movies that I count among my favorites, they have this one thing in common. As I enjoy each treasured scene, I am always anticipating the pleasure of the scenes to come. This is how it is with “The Assassin.” 105 minutes of astonishment.