By MARK DISTEFANO
If it weren’t for the immaculate visuals in The Assassin, the whole experience would be a snore. I’ve been often frustrated by the commonality of filmmakers’ grammar choices. For all the options available in cinema, many directors choose to frame in the same combination of shots — wide, over-the-shoulder, low angle — again and again and again. Hou Hsiao-hsien is not one of these directors. He creates painstakingly mounted studies in mood in which the form is related to the content inextricably. Hsiao-hsien is one of the few filmmakers who communicates at least 50 percent of his narratives through lighting and camerawork, as well as through writing and content.
That said, The Assassin is one of the most breathtaking films of the year, and yet it is quite soporific. The filming appears to have been conducted with the greatest attention to detail and yet with little attention to pace. I am not one to stand up and demand quick pace in a film, however, I suggest that an error might be made when things move so glacially that the viewers begin to get shut out of the proceedings. Thus, there is some kind of ambivalence I cannot shake off about Hsiao-hsien’s latest effort, winner of the Best Director Award at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. If I applaud it, I will be branded an art film snob, and if I quibble, I will be seen as too short-attention-spanned, or weaned on mainstream establishment fare. It’s a lose-lose proposition, but I must say, I’m on the fence about this one.
The story — although the audience is kept mostly in the dark about the ultimate narrative trajectory — takes place in ninth century China. The film stars Shu Qi as Yinniang, the assassin of the film’s title, carrying out swift and merciless deaths with knife and sword. The trouble is, her hand is occasionally stayed by her heart — by the sight of relatives of those whom she is hired to kill, which irks her master Jiaxin (Fang Yi-Sheu), who is also her mother figure. The relationship between the two recalls the emotional bond between Zhang Ziyi’s princess and Cheng Pei-pei’s Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. This is particularly a compliment to Shu Qi, whose relentless, quiet steeliness and abrupt fierceness during fights carry the film. She may very well be the next Zhang Ziyi, who went on to become an international star. Anyhow, as punishment for staying her hand, Yinniang the assassin is sent to a distant province to kill military commander Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen), her cousin whom she had once been set to marry. Many murky twists and turns ensue from there, and it takes index cards and constant note-taking to figure them out.
Chinese cinema is one of the most eclectic and diverse bodies of work in global cinema and contains some of the most invigorating New Wave pieces from directors such as Ang Lee (Taiwan, where Hsiao-hsien also hails from), Wong Kar-Wai, John Woo (both Hong Kong) and Zhang Yimou (mainland China). The Assassin takes place in a similar aesthetic as Kar-Wai’s martial arts epic from two years ago, The Grandmaster. The comparison is doubly valid, as that film was also one which left hardly an indelible impression on the mind in terms of plot, yet was intricately filmed and steeped in a gorgeous swath of rainbow colors.
Hsiao-hsien’s film might be a reckless case of style over substance, but the critics disagree when it comes to the art films, especially if they are imports from abroad. The precedence of style over substance apparent in Assassin really is no different form what we see in many derivative pop entertainments critics love to deride, but hey, you never see a critic trashing a Cannes winner over, say, Spectre. Spectre has exactly the same problems, but it’s a whole lot more interesting, a whole lot more exciting and it’s easier to understand. This might be because it sets a lower bar for itself to clear, but nevertheless.
I have seen only one other work by Hsiao-hsien, and I could look up the details to refresh my memory, but I confess, I would rather not in order to make a more earnest impression of it. I enjoyed it and was absorbed in it while I watched it — it is a film from 2005 called Three Times — but here I am, hard-pressed to remember one detail about the cast. It was beautiful, exquisite even, as I experienced, but proved consummately forgettable in the long run. What I remember are visuals of striking beauty, interweaving storylines, intersecting coincidences and a deliberate pace. Sound familiar? The Assassin does the exact same.
Mark DiStefano is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.