(Hou Hsiao-Hsien, 2015)
I should preface this short and ultimately inadequate write-up with the fact that I will need to return to The Assassin once again.
I was introduced to a large portion of Hou’s oeuvre earlier this year through Richard I. Suchenski’s (director of the Center for Moving Image Arts at Bard College) “Also Like Life” programming at the Gene Siskel Film Center. There, 35mm restorations of The Puppetmaster, Flowers of Shanghai, Millennium Mambo and several other notable Hou films were screened. I quickly learned that Hou places unusual demands on his viewer and in the case of his first wuxia, The Assassin, the degree of difficulty is vast.
I’ll eschew a conventional write-up of The Assassin’s scant plotting because (1) the historical density of the film’s material does not lend itself to a few condensed (and condescending) sentences and (2) the labyrinthine plotting and glacial pacing has become something of a standard in Hou’s filmography, where its deployment arouses a kind of contemplative immersion with the material. In the case of much of his latter day work, most notably beginning with Flowers of Shanghai and becoming increasingly more prevalent (and successful) in Millennium Mambo, Three Times, and The Flight of the Red Balloon, I was hypnotized by Hou’s visual repetitions and variations. The formal innovations of extended long takes (Flower of Shanghai’s runtime consisting of 30 shots) and graceful camera movement were attuned to a narrative of outsiders looking in, on a culture looking to the past as a means of understanding its present.
The Assassin adheres to this sense of the outsider confronted with a complicated historical present. The Hou-proxy in this case is Nie Yinniang (frequent Hou collaborator Qi Shu), a pensive assassin tasked with killing her former lover as a means of reaffirming her allegiances with the autonomous “court” that reared her into the cruel killer she is now. Yet this fable of revenge and political upheaval plays in whispers rather than broad strokes. Yinniang is more content to roam the shadows, hiding behind halcyon curtains drifting slightly in the breeze. She witnesses conversations on the sacrosanct rituals that compose the rivaling Weibo region along with the bureaucracy that interferes with their efficiency.
The wuxia elements of the film – the more violent flourishes that the term is associated with – are jarring and short. Hou is not interested in showcasing these elements, typically opting for long shots of the action, rendering them indecipherable. This effect implicates the viewer as both an outsider and a participant. A notable sequence in Hou’s The Puppetmaster, for example, involves dramatic scenes that are shot at such a great distance away from the action that the viewer cannot tell what’s going on in the frame, with bodies dwarfed by the mountainous backdrop (a technique that Hou utilizes in The Assassin). Here, fight scenes occur through the thick brush of forestry. And when Yinniang fights a worthy combatant, the violence is not marked by blood or gore, but rather through implication: a severed facemask on the ground or seeing Yinniang nursed back to health, the wound never explicitly shown to the viewer. Even the most violent of sequences, shown at the start of the film, are shot in stark black and white, highlighting an immediate detachment from violence itself.
So why didn’t it all come together? Suchenski mentioned the concept of lui bai in his address to Siskel Center attendees during the screening of The Puppetmaster, whereby he advises the audience that “even after a character has left the frame [in a Hou film] the audience must join together with the filmmaker to complete the shot” – that there’s an intrinsic openness in Hou’s work that urges its audience to aggressively interact with the work. Yet my capacity to interact with The Puppetmaster (and The Assassin, and my least favorite of Hou’s films, Good Men, Good Women) is stymied by a historical and political context that I plead ignorance on. The opening that Hou offers in his frames with those films requires a specific working knowledge of his culture’s history. That in no way is to suggest a fault in his filmmaking, but rather how his specific worldview can at times alienate even the most eager of viewers. The films that I respond to most in Hou’s filmography are those that match their historical context with formal ingenuity, where form reveals the emotional undercurrents of Hou’s characters. As The Assassin progressed, I never was capable of deciphering anything legibly human in Yinniang’s journey, producing a level of detachment that kept me, aggressively, at bay. It’s a perplexing feeling to be equal parts impressed with the visual splendor of a film yet, ultimately, disengaged.