Commencing Spank The Monkey’s two-part examination of Taiwanese martial arts cinema, past and present.
I’m not going to lie to you: I don’t get along with Hou Hsiao-Hsien all that much. I watched a couple of his films at the turn of the century – Flowers Of Shanghai in 1999, and Millennium Mambo in 2001 – and decided that he wasn’t for me. The first was a historical drama set in the brothels of 19th century China, while the second was a contemporary tale of Taiwanese youth, but they were both very obviously made by the same man. In each case, the visual surface of the film was so stunning, it almost distracted you from the paper-thin characterisation and wispy narrative underneath.
But then, in 2004, Hou surprised me. Café Lumiere was conceived as part of a celebration of the centenary of Japanese master director Yasujiro Ozu. Making an Ozu tribute without carefully delineated characters would be as ridiculous as shooting it on a Steadicam, and Hou ditched his usual emotional detachment to create a story of modern Tokyo that actually maintained your interest in the people who inhabited it. As a filmmaker who frequently set himself the challenge of working within restrictions, it turned out that the restriction of trying to recreate another man’s style was what he really needed.
That’s why I was intrigued to learn that Hou’s latest film would be in the wuxia genre, the classical blend of martial arts and heroic chivalry that’s produced some of South East Asia’s most resonant cinema. You don’t really associate this director with genre work generally, and his languid style would seem at odds with the requirement to have fights breaking out every reel or two. Would this be a restriction that would help or hinder his film?
The title character of The Assassin is Yinniang (Shu Qi), although when we first meet her she’s more of an assassin in training. In a black-and-white pre-credits sequence, we watch her perform two assignments towards the end of her apprenticeship: the first is executed perfectly, but the second is hindered by a sudden burst of human feeling. Yinniang is told by her aunt and mentor Jiaxin (Sheu Fang-yi) that this is a failing she’ll need to overcome. She heads back to her family home, where we discover what her ultimate mission is – to kill her cousin Tian (Chang Chen), the governor at the centre of a long-running clan dispute, who was at one point Yinniang’s fiancé.
Most stories about assassins ultimately boil down to the same thing: the moral choice someone has to make when they decide that killing people is their job, and whether they can sustain that choice in all circumstances. The Assassin has the same conundrum at its core, although Hou seeks to distract you with additional narrative complications involving secret pregnancies and court intrigues. For a viewer unfamiliar with the historical period, there’s a genuine risk that hurling all these additional characters and relationships at you will result in you losing track of the factions involved, and that’s certainly the case here.
Still, all my previous experiences with Hou Hsiao-Hsien had forewarned me that this was never going to be a plot-driven film: the visuals and the atmosphere would be paramount. And visually, this is a masterpiece. Working in collaboration with his regular cinematographer Lee Ping-bing, Hou creates shots that will stay with you for weeks afterwards. Aside from the jaw-dropping colour palette (the transition out of the introductory monochrome sequence is the first cue for an audience gasp), the main thing you notice is the intense amount of layering going on within individual shots. One long dialogue scene dreamily drifts in and out of focus as the camera tracks through varying layers of gauze curtains. In another, Yinniang’s mentor stands on top of a mountain as clouds gradually roll in and isolate her from the rest of the world. (Unfortunately, the one attempt at creating this sort of effect using CGI is painfully obvious and best forgotten about.)
With all these layers of imagery stacked on top of each other, you could imagine a less artistically rigorous director going for broke and making the best-looking 3D film ever made. But Hou doesn’t want to show off with 3D: actually, he doesn’t even want to show off with widescreen. He’s shooting almost entirely in the claustrophobic 4:3 Academy aspect ratio, with just one scene opening out to the more traditional 1.85:1. To a fan of the more traditional wuxia film, this would seem like madness: part of the joy of a well-choreographed fight scene is in the movement within the frame, and Hou’s deliberately limited the amount of space he’s got to move in.
The action scenes, when they come, are both helped and hindered by Hou’s approach. His usual shooting style involves as little editing as possible: where he can, he likes to encompass an entire scene inside a single shot. I’d hoped that he could find a way to do that with the fights here, but they’re edited in a very conventional manner. Having said that, there’s one editing trick that delights throughout the film: his tendency to jump-cut from a moment of stillness directly into the first impact of the fight, ensuring that every one starts with an adrenalin jolt. Apart from the very occasional wire-aided leap, this is all realistic close-quarters combat, tightly framed within the limited space – Hou doesn’t need the widescreen format because the fights are all so constrained.
So where’s the problem? As ever, unfortunately, it’s down to Hou’s lack of interest in character. Wuxia is never just about the fights, it’s about how they define the relationships between the people in the story. And apart from the ever-wonderful Shu Qi, stomping sullenly from one scene to the next in long coat and boots like a Taiwanese Saga Norén, you don’t really care about any of these people. The obvious marketing angle for anyone trying to sell The Assassin to an audience is to hint at the long tradition of swordplay and martial arts epics, but those epics used character to give a huge narrative sweep beyond the simple goodies v baddies story engine. Having far too many supporting characters – and then cramming them into too short a running time – is no substitute for that sweep.
To some extent, you can believe the hype; it’s hard to imagine a more ravishing film than The Assassin hitting cinema screens in 2016. It’s a glorious piece of visual art. But it could have been so much more than that.
(to be continued)
The Assassin opens in UK cinemas today.