Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Hou Hsiao-Hsien's The Assassin

Taiwan's Hou Hsiao-Hsien is one of the most acclaimed filmmakers in the world, and has been a favorite of mine since I first saw his Three Times back in 2009. I recently was able to see two of his most acclaimed movies, his most recent (the one that won him the Best Director award at this years Cannes Film Festival) The Assassin, as well as what is often pointed to as his greatest movie, 1989's politically charged A City of Sadness. Both are unmistakably the work of the highest caliber of filmmaker, one is one of the best movies of the year and the other is one of the best movies of its decade. This is a review of The Assassin, with A City of Sadness to come later.

The Assassin stars the impossibly beautiful Qi Shu (her third collaboration with Hou) in the title role. Her magnetic work carries the movie despite the fact that I think she only says about 5 sentences. She plays Yinniang, a 9th century woman who was taken away from her family as a child and trained to become an unparalleled killing tool. We join her as she starts having that downfall of many a movie assassin, human emotions. Tasked with a target of her former betrothed husband, Tian Ji'an (Chang Chen, reuniting with his Three Times cohorts), Yinniang must decide whether or not to defy her master or to betray her heart.

All of this plays out in Hou's typical elliptical and slow storytelling. I've read that the original script explained much more of the story and either through the shooting or during the editing process Hou took things out so that the final product is much more opaque and not straightforward. It lends a wonderful intrigue to the movie, because even though it's not fast paced we are often trying to figure out what's going on, and why. There was a point late in the movie when I had an epiphany as to what was going on and how certain characters related to each other. I'm not sure how this will play on re-watches but at least on the first viewing it makes for a very layered and fascinating viewing experience.

And all of that on top of the fact that this is one of the most beautiful, visually striking movies ever made. Not just the impeccable costuming and set design but also the landscapes (filmed in central and northern China) and Hou's genius in photographic framing in addition to the staging of the action. Hou has always made beautiful movies, but this is no question his most beautiful yet.

Viewers who come into the movie based on the exciting trailer or the promise of the typical wuxia (ancient martial arts) movie will be numbed by the pregnant silences and even the way Hou shoots the action, not up close and flashy like a Hollywood director, but from his usual medium or long shots, and often over before you know it. And yet, because it's so different from what we're conditioned to expect, that's why I find so many of the sequences still vividly in my mind days later. The birch tree forest fight (and I didn't even realize who Yinniang's opponent was until later, reading about the movie), Yinniang taking on hordes of guards in the trees outside Tian Jian's compound, shot from long distance so that most of the action is obscured by the trees. It's really extraordinary stuff for us Hou fans. I'm glad he made a wuxia film all his own, instead of trying to make an action movie to have a hit or something. And the fact that it's gotten him some of the best notices of his career is just icing on the cake.

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