This extraordinary film reached the cinemas in 2015, and even reached Norwich in February of this year. Unlike a blockbuster, it has taken its time to make an impact.
I have read some reviews, although I am far from having seen lots of them, but the ones I did see have been silent on one aspect. If it is an aesthetic law that a work of art set in the past always tells you as much about the period in which it was made (i.e. now) as the period in which it is set (i.e. then), what does The Assassin tell us about the present? It is made by a Taiwanese, and is a Taiwan-China co-production, and what it tells us is that for a large country, e.g. China, to destabilise a small country, e.g. Taiwan, is a mistake, morally but also politically. The status quo is disrupted at peril.
The story of the film is the dispatch of the assassin, Nie Yinniang, by Princess Jiaching to Weìbó province in order to murder Tian Ji’an, the jiedushi (military governor) of Hamdan prefecture within Hebei province. This is a move by the Tang Dynasty to increase its power. The film tells how Nie Yinniang then rebels against this order. Why? Ostensibly because her heart tells her to spare Tian Ji’an who it turns out was once betrothed to her as a peace move between the Court and Weibo. But there is a strand of political expediency in her thinking too. Her puppetmaster has tried to instil in her the idea that ‘the way of the sword is pitiless’, but Nie Yinniang argues that since Tian Ji’an’s son is so young, to kill Tian Ji’an would bring chaos to Weibo.
The historical source is a story by Pie Xing called ‘Nie Yinniang’, written in 9th-century China, and covering recent events since Tian Ji’an was jiedushi from 796 to 812. But the film works at several levels, and strict historicity is probably the most marginal.
- It is a martial arts film.
- It is a ‘love story’ about the complex relationship between Nie Yinninag and Tian Ji’an.
- It is a story with a moral: don’t destabilise, be prepared to stand up to power.
- It is a contemporary fable: ‘China, hands off Taiwan.’ Keep the status quo.
Interestingly, on this last point, Wikipedia tells us the film cost the equivalent of US$14.9 million. By 2010, the director Hou Hsiao-Hsien had assembled a budget but in the end over half of the film’s final budget came from China. This is intriguing: were the Chinese producers of the view that China-Taiwan relations should not be destabilised, or was it more Machiavellian still, that this is a propaganda film through which the Chinese Communist Party supported the film’s message as a cover for the fact that it sought, if not to destabilise Taiwan, then to act in an overbearing manner towards it? After all, the situation between China and Taiwan is a bomb waiting to explode.
A final inscrutable, perplexing thought: Weibo is the brand name for the Chinese micro-blogging website, that is to say the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. So ‘Don’t destabilise Weibo’ (the province) means ‘Don’t interfere in Weibo’ (the microblog). No doubt all parties readily deny such a connection, but if you believe in the secret life of cinema, then you can relish this thought.