At a worldly 68 years of age, Hou Hsiao-Hsien shows signs of slowing down, but not of stopping. Like the titular character of his new film The Assassin, he bides his time, calibrating every movement with painterly precision and critical sangfroid. And when he pounces, the consequences are mighty and unwavering. His latest kill, The Assassin, is the result of Hou’s eight year sabbatical from releasing films, or eight years of planning for this one. The result is a singularly transfixing ballet of action and inaction, friction and restfulness, where the most trenchant fallout is found in the pregnant pauses of stillness and the flickers of a sword glimpsed almost as if in the film’s peripheral vision. The Assassin is a work of almost spiritually free-floating, cloud-encircling ravishment, much like Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, where emotional effervescence and transcendence overpowers detached intellectual consideration.
However, even if the film’s resplendent beauty almost defies analysis, the film’s parade of somehow kinesthetic placidity and tranquil impassivity is nonetheless feline and meticulous in its cunning and planning. As deliriously beautiful as The Assassin is, the temptation to deny its pinprick craft for sheer experiential purity tells an incomplete tale of the film. Something like The Tree of Life defies craft for its ambitions necessarily eclipse its successes – the mark of almost any great film being that it cannot truly fulfill its desires. Yet The Assassin is as close a film as we have seen to fulfilling the promise of (dare I say) Ozu-like perfection, a work where the architecture of film is in full service of thematic sublimity. It is a startlingly complete work of visual symmetry and aural metronomy. Removing or adding a frame to the picture would curtail its incandescence.
Dropped into a fable-like fantasia of assassin (played by Shu Qi) tasked to kill her former fiance (played by Chang Chen) by her current master, The Assassin is the closest modern cinematic approximation of the unfathomably cavernous well of ancient Chinese art. The film’s cinematography by Mark Lee Ping Bin may just parallel, if not outshine, his best-of-the-current-millennium haze of In the Mood for Love. The film evokes 9th century China as a magisterial wilderness of uncontainable space and formalist allure. The exteriors are almost season-less overpasses of flora and fauna, watercolor masterpieces of hues both bled dry and poignantly impregnated with meaning.
That the film’s unsurpassed natural beauty is a success is no surprise; Hou has a history with nature and has always taken great pains to evoke the meditative calm and primal poetry found in the restful colors of Ancient Chinese artwork. The Assassin’s central surprise is that it is the film’s interiors – the stalking menageries of our assassin – where it truly shines. Hou traps each character, including the would-be killer, within a forest of poised pillars and skulking, unsheathed veils– at once material and immaterial in their translucence – that frame and scaffold the physical relationship of the characters according to the dialectics and power structures that bind the characters together. The relationship between killer and target cracks and fractures over time, and the visuals clench the two figures toward each other while also reminding of the inescapable space between them. The pas de deux of predator and prey morphs into a two-person ouroboros, with each coerced to hunt the other and sacrifice their own inner essence in the process.
A sacrifice corroborated by the fastidious precision of the physical performances in the film, which are almost wordless and defined by piercing bursts of movement within palettes of stillness. The primary actors move with grace and purpose but not without recalcitrance. The weight of social roles weathers their faces, trapping them and enshrining them with the full aura of historical oppression. However, while watching and fighting one another, their eyes reveal more than the frailty of inability. This is not simply a quest to kill, or to survive. The eyes allude to the humanity of envy and desire; they invoke lust and still-present need. The desire to fight one another is a carefully hidden social play that allows for the performance of their true wishes – to seek one another, to act out a shell of the relationship they might have had in another life had they remained betrothed. The martial arts mutates into a dialect for the two to understand one another; the ritualistically cadenced sword slashes mirror conversation, love, and other types of social performance. The pained elegance of the visual framing and character blocking ensures that the characters are never truly together, never one in the same, but never completely set off from one another either. They exist, as Ozu’s generationally-divided family did in Tokyo Story, as segregated bodies and an integrated whole.
The action of The Assassin is choreographed with poise, but no lack of intimacy, contention, and contortion. Occasionally, the camera often seems disinterested in the action, but a closer inspection reveals the real emotion at play: a sense of dignity and respect to cover up the naughty entanglements of personhood enacted before it. The camera isn’t dispassionate; it is hiding as it might from a secret meeting, or a bedroom session of ill repute, affording the characters their privacy and tacitly acknowledging the bubbling secrets and billowing passions at play in the martial arts. For such a fastidiously elegant film, Hou’s camera is confident enough to trust in the potency of what is missing from the frame, just like the power of what is missing from the lives of the film’s characters.
Watching the serpentine figure of Qi stalk the backwoods of the screen like a slasher affixed on her target but unsure of her determination to strike, the crisp blackness of her visage centers her in the screen like a coiled snake offset from the husky candlelit wisps of a film dominated by lighter colors. It is almost as if she wants to be noticed, to be acknowledged in a world that has secluded her to the prison of unflagging murder. She is an ultra-competent figure – the time she takes to perform her action is not a symbol of her incapability or her weakness but her internal dialectics. The visual framing corroborates her stalking and ensures her second-to-none lethal prowess. She is a dominant force in frames, but she is also cut off frequently, surrounded by other objects or people on either sides, and rendered diminutive or torn to pieces. Her singularity of power necessarily entails her distance from humanity, and the signalling strength of her black garb cannot but visually seclude her and mark her off from all that surrounds her. She exists not as part of the background, part of society, but as a lone wolf set on top of it, and thus away from it.
The film recalls the contradictory spirit, but not the specific technique, of how Orson Welles shot Charles Foster Kane from below to invoke his towering charisma and power while also envisioning the ceiling above the character that always blocked him and turned his stature into a trap. The larger he was, the less space he had to move without confronting all that blockaded him from growing further still. If Qi can assert her power with the swift stab of a sword, she must recede into the background and to her master, who may just be her owner. In declining to fulfill her mission, she is not failing so much as freeing herself from the trap that lingers around her. She is taking control of herself, having unearthed a new version of herself in the process, a visual figure free to move with the swaying breeze, and to the breeze of her own life-affirming mortal flesh. In the end, she may finally be able to blend into the background after all.