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THE ASSASSIN AND BIOETHICS: Death and Destruction vs. Peonies and Silk

The Assassin was one of  the three opening night films at the 2015 Mill Valley Film Festival. Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao Hsien is no stranger to the Cannes festival awards. This film won him the Cannes 2015 Best Director. Attraction to the screen narratives of ‘assassins’ raises clear bioethical concern during pervasive aggression at home and abroad. The Assassin differs from others in its genre. It does not titillate with the brutality of cold blooded murder. Instead, The Assassin may demonstrate a filmic antidote for the desensitization of screen violence.

The original assassins are thought, by some, to have been mercenaries, in Persia, from the sect of Shia Islam, in the period between the 9th and 10th century. This sect worked against the Sunni Islam who controlled that empire. Assassins were tools of barons who held no independent army.

Though set in the Chinese context, and created by a man, The Assassin has a profoundly feminist sensibility. The assassin of this film’s interest is a woman born in a ninth century imperial court. It is a profoundly feminist approach to story telling. Her mother rejects imperial control and escapes, knowing the action will likely cost her life and that of her daughter. Before her death, the fleeing mother arranges her daughter’s care by an aunt and uncle. The imperial powers eventually wish to conquer the geographical region where the child has been fostered, again risking her death. For the child’s protection her surrogate parents place her in the care of a ‘nun.’ The Nun’s machinations train the child as an assassin. We meet the girl in young adulthood, were she is driven by her filial longings to break away from her heinous training.

The ‘Assassin Genre’ usually depicts an innocent, extracted from their family’s stability and values, being co-opted by an evil power. The plethora of large and small screen versions of this theme includes screen works ranging from The Borne Identity to more recent television shows like Complications and Blindspot. Malleability of unformed systematic reasoning, when faced with moral conflict, is often essential to training in the Assassin Genre, as in life. —Think child soldiers, street gang members, late adolescents in the military,  and fascists masquerading as religious extremist.

Bioethics is an applied ethics concerned with science and technology affecting the biosphere and it is inclusive of medical ethics. The underpinning principles of bioethics  are beneficence, autonomy and justice. Ethical sense generally comes from two separate mechanisms. The first is through principles, drilled into a person as in religion, academia and professions. The second approach to enhancing morality is ‘casuistry.’   Casuistry imparts moral understanding through cases or stories. However, it is not just the Aristotelian narrative plot curve that generates the organized portrayal of ethical dilemmas. Particularly in the case of film, the way in which stories are told influences meaning.

Greek drama analysis might argue that depicting an assassin’s journey allows viewers to work through feelings of loss of connectedness. But screen science is a technology, incidentally facilitating art, and can be held to the standard bioethical scrutiny as are other technologies. Does the technology do good?  Does it interfere with the viewers autonomy or enlightened self interest? Are the burdens and benefits of this technology equitably distributed between the most and least vulnerable persons?

Clinically, film can be used to  intentionally manipulate emotion and physiology. Think Clock Work Orange. Other examples include use of film to desensitize persons with, say, arachnophobia. The retina can’t tell the difference between a real spider unless the mind clarifies the matter.  Our movie memory is stored  in the same places as our real experiences. ‘Suspension of disbelief’ is required to watch a film.

If the arachnophobe believes a film spider is real, then the clinical matter is training them to sublimate the emotional and physiologic response during repeated exposures. Eventually, the sublimation becomes automatic. If a viewer suspends believes the screen violence is real, there should be a mechanism to train them to abhor that violence.

Among the tenants of bioethics, and especially clinical medical ethics, is that those who know a field best have increased ethical obligation within that field. Film master Hou Hsiao Hsien’s gives a new twist to reversing the desensitization to violence.That’s a good thing since drilling principles into young minds doesn’t seem to be working.  He uses the juxtaposition of heinous acts with extraordinary beauty. He directs  viewers’ minds to be afraid of violence, initially because it waste time better used for more intimacy with the pleasing aesthetic of this filmmakers’ world. We beg, “Let her walk through that field just one more time!”

Though presaged by the elegance portrayed in many martial arts films, Hou Hsiao Hsien’s film Assassin has left the ‘kick’ genre in the dust. The Assassin is not about killing, but demonstrates escape from horrid depictions by pushing prayers for peonies and silk.

Reference for Assassin

The Assassin (2015) directed by Hou Hsiao Hsien (China, Hong Kong, Tiawan) Well Go (2015) 105 mins

The Assassin Trailer

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