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Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin

Hou Hsiao-hsien, The Assassin, 2015, 35 mm, color and black-and-white, sound, 105 minutes. Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi).

IT SHOULD COME as little surprise that the richest, most sensuous film of 2015 has strong ties to older artistic traditions. As with much great art, the innovations of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin are inextricably intertwined with, and deepened by, the reworking of earlier models (including Hou’s own films). An international coproduction made with the largest budget of Hou’s career, The Assassin will challenge those looking for a conventional wuxia film and those who admire the Taiwanese master’s work primarily for its precise delineation of quotidian experience. In an interview two years ago, Hou explained that shooting was difficult because it “was not possible to fully grasp” the “details from life” in an era as remote as the Tang dynasty. This may help to explain the work’s long gestation—Hou, who has been trying to make a film like this for decades, began shooting material in 2010—as well as its beguiling fusion of the concrete and the abstract. Elegant and quietly vigorous, The Assassin gives a new inflection to the cluster of formal and thematic interests that have defined Hou’s mature style.

Although the combination of lengthy shots and, in his early work, a relatively static camera has given Hou an exaggerated reputation as a minimalist, his is above all a cinema of movement. The dance sequence late in The Assassin and the combat scenes throughout are consummate examples. Yet even less dramatic interior sequences are shaped by constant motion around the edges of the frame, from candles flickering in the foreground to servants moving in the distance, and by the gliding movements of the camera itself. The impression of stately dynamism is reinforced by the complex play with screens and partitions, which extends not only to the handheld mirrors used by many of the characters but also to the film’s shifting aspect ratio. Doorways, gates, windows, and painted screens create vertiginous layers of framing, and the prominence of fluttering curtains and hanging objects invites comparison to the dense mise-en-scène of both Josef von Sternberg and Kenji Mizoguchi. Unusually for Hou, the interiors were shot primarily on meticulously detailed sets constructed at the studios of the Central Motion Picture Corporation in Taipei (where Hou learned his craft in the 1970s and early ’80s). A few architectural shots were taken in Japan, where several Tang-dynasty-style buildings are preserved, and the landscapes were filmed in Inner Mongolia and Hubei.The passage through forests, mountains, and caverns in these location shots complements the interior framing devices and offers period correlates to the mobile train shots in Hou’s more contemporary work.

Hou and director of photography Mark Lee Ping-bin make the most of the lush colors and nuanced blacks of 35-mm film, drawing attention to the particularities of light and creating visual rhymes that resonate across the body of the film. Sound takes on a similarly mnemonic function and provides connective tissue within a fragmented narrative space, simultaneously grounding the characters in their environments and creating a sense of unifying flow (at one point, insect and bird noises around a lake are linked almost seamlessly with the crackle of flames inside a hut). These iterative audiovisual patterns poetically smooth over the spatial discontinuities and temporal ellipses that are constitutive parts of Hou’s extraordinarily subtle aesthetic. What is most striking about The Assassin, however, is the persistent emphasis on visibility—or lack thereof. Not since Mizoguchi’s The 47 Ronin (1941–42) and Princess Yang Kwei-fei (1955) has a film so thoroughly made use of the possibilities for obstructed vision in palaces. Protagonist Nie Yinniang’s skill as an assassin derives above all from her ability to conceal her presence and unobtrusively traverse these labyrinthine spaces.

Hou’s rhythms remain as hypnotic as ever, but the power of his mise-en-scène has far too often obscured his achievements as a montage filmmaker (achievements due in no small part to his forty-year collaboration with editor Liao Ching-sung). The Assassin marks only the newest stage in Hou’s reinvention of cinema’s most basic editing structures, an ambition he has pursued since the beginning of his career. His breakthrough, The Boys from Fengkuei (1983), includes a characteristically understated sequence that commingles past and present, layering space and time by introducing the protagonist’s reminiscence within a continuous panning movement and closing it with a countershot from the present. This method is developed further in films like A City of Sadness (1989), where the point of view sometimes shifts from shot to shot and narrative context is provided retrospectively, encouraging viewers to continually refine their understanding of preceding scenes even when immersed in the unfolding present. In subsequent films, Hou pushed these strategies in new directions. The second half of his shape-shifting masterpiece The Puppetmaster (1993) is structured around a series of shot/countershot–based “interviews,” which establish complex relationships between the subjective recollections of the narrator-protagonist and the ostensibly objective re-creations of historical experience. Handheld-camera work, color filters, and refracted objects are used to represent the points of view of the characters in Goodbye South, Goodbye (1996), while the roving camera in Flowers of Shanghai (1998) creates the impression of continuous movement toward and away from different narrative centers. One of the most distinctive features of The Assassin is the centrality accorded to the viewpoint of a single character. In the opening shot, the camera glides to the left from a pair of mules to Yinniang and her teacher looking offscreen at a planned target. The next shot shows horses ambling to the right. For much of the film, this sequencing is reversed: Shots in which the camera voyeuristically probes interior spaces are followed by shots of the protagonist partially hidden behind or between curtains. In every case, the camera is aligned conceptually, but not strictly optically, with her point of view, as if, like her, it were trying to make sense of a world in which visibility connotes both the display of political power and vulnerability to outside forces.

Hou and screenwriter Chu Tien-wen made a number of adjustments to “Nie Yinniang,” the ninth-century chuanqi on which the film is based, shifting the focus away from the story’s magical elements and toward its historical context. The Assassin is arguably the most vivid cinematic depiction of the late Tang dynasty, a time of decentralized governance marked by a series of crises, including famine, factional infighting, and the increasing autonomy of the regional commanders (jiedushi). As sensitive to geopolitical nuance as ever, Hou uses the tensions between Weibo Province and the imperial court to continue his exploration of center/periphery dynamics, with the internecine family struggle of once-betrothed cousins doubling as an oblique commentary on the ambiguous position of his adoptive homeland. (In this respect, The Assassin has affinities with the original Hong Kong version of Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster [2013], especially with its philosophical exploration of the relationship between North and South China. Like Wong, Hou was born in mainland China—in Guangdong in 1947—and emigrated shortly thereafter.) The Tang dynasty was also a period of ascendancy for Taoism, and Hou explained a decade ago that one of his motivations for making a wuxia was the desire to talk about what Taoism, as a system of self-mastery, represents. Hou nevertheless struggled to find a way to depict the protagonist’s decision to renounce killing. The solution he settled on—representing her spiritual transformation only through its effects—remains faithful to the original story and strengthens the film’s rigorously tripartite cinematic structure (the color epilogue symmetrically reverses the black-and-white prologue).

In its idiosyncratic approach to literary adaptation, its combination of spectacle and intimacy, and its slow-building affective force, the film that The Assassin most resembles is Flowers of Shanghai. Like the story “Nie Yinniang,” the novel on which Hou’s earlier film was based (Han Bangqing’s The Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai) also alternates interior and exterior scenes, but Hou eliminated the latter, making the resulting film into a devastating study of enclosure. The characters in Flowers of Shanghai are locked inside—and unable to see beyond—their world, a bubble whose contours are defined by the foreign concessions and the logic of nineteenth-century imperialism. Han’s novel was published in 1894, one year before the Chinese defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War brought to an end the preindustrial Shanghai depicted in the film and led to Taiwan’s becoming a Japanese colony. This is also, of course, the very moment in which film projection began. Thus, with its figures moving in cell-like spaces oriented around artificial lights, Flowers of Shanghai offers a profound meditation on the origins, nature, and meaning of cinema itself. Less hermetic and more circular, The Assassin culminates in a remarkable shot that, like the ambivalent homecoming that opens and closes Good Men, Good Women (1995), consolidates the dominant motifs of the film and aligns them with the essence of the medium. During a long take that continues into the end credits, the camera moves gracefully from right to left, trying to keep up as Yinniang and her compatriots disappear below the horizon, emerge back into view, and then vanish into the landscape.

The Assassin makes its US debut at the 53rd New York Film Festival on Oct. 9 before opening in theaters in New York and Los Angeles on Oct. 16.

Richard I. Suchenski is the editor of Hou Hsiao-hsien (Austrian Film Museum/Columbia University Press, 2014), the organizer of the international touring retrospective “Also Like Life: The Films of Hou Hsiao-hsien” (2014–15), and the author of Projections of Memory: Romanticism, Modernism, and the Aesthetics of Film, forthcoming from Oxford University Press early next year.