Outlining a feminist narrative: The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2015)

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

Hou Hsiao-hsien attempt to the wuxia genre

The Assassin (2015) is Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s latest feature and first attempt at the wuxia genre. The movie is a joint Taiwan-Hong Kong production whose female protagonist is played by actress Shu Qi, at her third collaboration with the director. Her male counterpart is interpreted by international movie star Chang Chen, already known for his role in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000).

The movie was released in China and Hong Kong on August 27th, 2015. Here the film gained overall 61,385 million CN ¥ at the box office. Being the first martial arts movie by a director widely appreciated for his contribution to contemporary realism, critics were divided between those praising Hou’s adaptation of realistic features to the genre and others pointing out at the lack of traditional wuxia elements in the movie. In the US, where it was released on October 16th, 2015, The Assassin earned 632,5 thousand US $ at the box office1. Here the movie received critical attention mostly in response to Hou’s winning the best direction award at Cannes Film Festival.

The movie is Hou Hsiao-hsien’s haven to the martial arts category, already explored by directors Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou2. Nonetheless, The Assassin stands out for its reshaping of the genre: fighting scenes are seemingly realistic and do not constitute a relevant part of the narrative; moreover, magic and fantasy features are present yet not crucial to the story.

The movie is set in ninth-century China, governed by the Tang Dynasty. The protagonist, Nie Yinniang, was trained by a nun as a killer since the age of ten in order to murder corrupted generals. When mercy prevents her from completing one of her missions, she’s punished by her master with a more demanding task: killing Tian Ji’an, a rebel governor of the Weibo province, also her cousin and former betrothed.

Called to choose between her mission and family, Nie Yinniang informs Tian Ji’an of her presence in a few ambushes. Nevertheless, she constantly hesitates, never managing to actually kill him. At the end of the movie, the woman will escape both her mission and family.

As suggested by Teo (2015)3, «Hou explores not only the moral code of the assassin but also the nature of the female warrior». The director indeed develops the wuxia genre through a reflection on female heroism. Replying to a common tendency in recent contributions to the wuxia genre (see Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Hou chooses in turn a female protagonist for his feature. Nevertheless, he appears hesitant in defining her character, to the point that feminist discourse struggles to emerge in the movie.

In this paper, I will then try to analyse Hou’s treatment of his heroine to understand if The Assassin can be considered a successful example of a narrative centred on a complex female figure. In order to do so, I will relate to Kyle’s criteria defining a feminist story. Being not possible to focus on each criterion, I will select those who apply most to The Assassin. Furthermore, I will consider Cai’s view on female desire in the wuxia genre to support my thesis, namely that The Assassin – while exploring the woman killer ethics – still lacks in the development of the main character, to the point that it can be considered a feminist movie only to some extent.

Identifying a feminist narrative

In her work4, Kyle (2016) outlines a few formulas whose application in a text help defining whether it can be considered a feminist text. Although the author applies such criteria to a specific case study, they can be employed to examine any narrative.

A first criterion consists in the movie passing the Bechdel test, meaning that the story should (1) include at least two female characters, (2) who talk to each other (3) about anything which does not concern male characters. The application of the Bechdel standards to The Assassin is partially problematic since dialogue in the movie is reduced to the essential, with Shu Qi delivering less than ten lines. All things considered, it’s reasonable to say that she only has significantly relevant dialogues with other two female characters, the nun who trained her and her aunt. In her interactions with her master, Nie Yinniang discusses her inability to succeed in the mission she was given; although the dialogue isn’t entirely focused on a male character, he still constitutes the pretext to the dialogue itself (be him the general that Nie Yinniang failed to kill or Tian Ji’an, whom she has to murder as punishment). Similarly, a man constitutes the cause of her self-dismissal at the end of the movie. In another scene, we see the protagonist meeting her aunt, who informs her of the events that involved her family during the time she was away. This dialogue – in which Nie Yinniang is a passive listener – is mostly informative, but it places again a relevant focus on the figure of Tian Ji’an, insisting on the fact that he was once promised to the protagonist. From the analysis of the interaction that Nie Yinninang has with her aunt and her master, it can be said that the movie passes the Bechdel test but with a few reservations. In fact, even if dialogues aren’t entirely focused on a male character, they often mention or imply his influence in the protagonist’s story.

Another criterion introduced by Kyle is one seeking for the representation of a round and dynamic female character. According to the author, «a round character is one who is well developed, who has positive as well as negative qualities, and whose motivations are multilateral». Nie Yinniang meets this description quite fully: her troubled past and avenging motivations justify her killer profession; moreover, she’s reluctant to a cold-blooded justice when personal feelings are involved. For this reason and for her final decision to leave both her family and her office behind, the protagonist can be defined as a round, dynamic character. Nevertheless, some questions about Nie Yinniang remain unanswered throughout the whole movie, thus making it difficult to claim that she can be considered a fully round character. For example, we never have the chance to understand how she feels about having trained with the nun as an assassin, away from her family since she was a child. Similarly, it’s never possible to fully comprehend whether she would have preferred the marriage path to the one she was forced to undertake. The very fact that she hesitates when asked to kill her former betrothed does not openly testify for her preference to be a wife rather than a killer. The lack of definition of Shu Qi’s character emerges even more clearly when she’s compared to the protagonist of Ang Lee’s wuxia movie, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, who openly rejects marriage and expresses the wish to live as a fighter.

Female desire and agency in Ang Lee’s contribution to the wuxia genre were discussed also by author Rong Cai (2005)5. Her observations help define Nie Yinninang’s characterisation in The Assassin. The author maintains that «the misplaced female desire in Crouching Tiger is the subversive origin of chaos and death», intending that female protagonists’ opposition to traditional female roles leads to dramatic outturns in the narrative. In The Assassin, subversive desire is the premise for the whole narrative, although presented as a will of self-made justice rather than an opposition to gendered roles. In this sense, one may say that Nie Yinniang decision not to pursue her killer profession could be read into her will to re-establish order in the province. This is proved by the fact that, when taking leave from her master, she claims she didn’t kill Tian Ji’an to spare Weibo from chaos. At the same time, her desertion does not coincide with a reconciliation with her family nor with a return to a traditional female role, which may be configured as an opposition to imposed gender dynamics. This would confirm Nie Yinniang as a dynamic, agency-given character.

A sketched feminist story

In conclusion, The Assassin is, after all, a feminist narrative. This is proven by its respecting most of the criteria identified by Kyle (2016), especially the passing of the Bechdel test and the presence of a globally complex character. Much could be added on other criteria respected in the movie, as the female protagonist’s escaping the marriage/death trap and her being a heroic figure. Moreover, a reflection on female desire is present in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s movie as well as in other contemporary examples of the wuxia genre. Nonetheless, the director struggles in conveying a fully comprehensible discourse on female agency, an aspect emerging more clearly through a comparison of The Assassin with more intelligible features such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. This may be due to the fact that Hou was probably more concerned with style rather than character development. As perfectly expressed by Scott, «Mr. Hou is a reluctant dramatizer, preferring the oblique indication of emotion to its direct expression». In other words, the director’s aim with The Assassin was mostly the adaption of his visual and narrative trademarks – namely the repeated use of long takes, minimalist dialogues and contemplative shots – to the wuxia genre rather than the development of a round, feminist heroine.

1 Source: Rotten Tomatoes.

2 Who directed, respectively, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Hero (2002).

3 The Assassin (2015).

4 Her Story, Too. Final Fantasy X, Revolutionary Girl Utena, and the Feminist Hero’s Journey (2016).

5 Gender Imaginations in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the Wuxia World (2005).


Cai, R. (2005). Gender imaginations in crouching tiger, hidden dragon and the Wuxia World. Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique, pp. 443-460.

Kyle, C. B. (2016). Her story, too. Final Fantasy X, Revolutionary Girl Utena, and the Feminist Hero’s Journey. Heroines of Film and Television: Portrayals in Popular Culture. London: Rowman and Littlefield, pp. 136-143.

Teo, S. (2015). The Assassin. Cinéaste, Winter 2015, Vol. 41, No. 1, pp. 48-50. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26356394


Scott, A. O. (2015). Review: ‘The Assassin’ finds delight in a deadly vocation. The New York Times. Retrieved October 11, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/16/movies/review-the-assassin-finds-delight-in-a-deadly- vocation.html


Lee, A. (2000). Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Asian Union Film & Entertainment.

Hou, H. (2015). The Assassin. Central Motion Pictures.


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