• THE ASSASSIN: Personal reflections from James Udden

    Monday | June 1, 2015   open printable version open printable version

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    The Assassin (Nie Yin Niang; Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2015).

    DB here:

    Last week there was a big Hou Hsiao-hsien event in Belgium. A seminar hosted by Tom Paulus of the University of Antwerp and the Photogénie blog featured many speakers along with Hou and his collaborator Chu Tien-Wen. (I was scheduled to go but was felled by bronchitis and couldn’t travel.) That event was followed on Wednesday by a master class with Hou, Chu, and Olivier Assayas at the Royal Film Archive of Belgium. Under the auspices of curator Nicola Mazzanti, the Cinematek, as it’s known, has embarked on restoring Hou’s oeuvre and is currently playing a retrospective. (The accompanying catalogue is here.) Wednesday evening was capped by a gala screening of The Assassin.

    One of the seminar participants, Jim Udden, is no stranger to this site. His was the first book in English on Hou’s career (No Man an Island) and he contributed an on-set visit to this site when Hou was shooting The Assassin. Over the years he has built up a strong personal relation with Hou and Chu. Here are his initial impressions after the Brussels screening.

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    Films by Hou Hsiao-hsien are usually to be experienced first, and understood only much later, and often after some effort. This premise applies with special force to The Assassin.

    It is about the most direct experience of a film I’ve ever had. I didn’t understand very much of the plot, or even the language. The subtitles were only in French, and the Chinese was – while recognizably Mandarin – so classical in nature, so foreign in syntax and rhythm compared to vernacular Chinese today that even native Mandarin speakers are going to need a subtitled translation. Even then, those who could read the French subtitles admitted that much of this eluded their comprehension.

    Yet I was curiously grateful for the linguistic barriers. I found myself resisting looking down at the subtitles for fear of missing the sheer surfeit of details. I was confronted by a string of arresting image/sound couplets that would make even a dedicated sensibilist blush. For those who seek the comforts of linear narratives, The Assassin, comprised of images and shots so ravishing, so exquisitely wrought, so overwhelming in their layered details, will smack of empty formalism. But if you’re open to the deftly poetic, or rather to defiant poetic obliqueness, and if you’re willing to follow cinema beyond the confines of narrative, you will encounter a film unlike any others–including other Hou films.

    The Assassin is not Flowers of Shanghai, the other Hou film replete with almost unfathomable beauty. The new work marks a return to the glorious landscapes of Hou’s earlier films, taken mostly on locations in mainland China. These landscapes are melded seamlessly with interior shots, erasing the divide between indoors and outdoors. The two large sets built in Taiwan that I saw back in December of 2012, when the team commenced shooting in Taipei, were not closed off from the outdoors. They were open-aired sets with only grates and panels acting as walls. This arrangement allowed maximum flexibility, so that the same two buildings could stand in for dozens of interior locations in the finished film.

    Only watching the film last Thursday did I detect a deeper purpose beyond the already demanding task of capturing historical details of the Tang Dynasty. That purpose becomes evident in a scene midway through the film where Nie Yingnaing is attempting to assassinate her cousin. Long takes are shot through diaphanous veils with a shallow depth of field that makes for an unpredictable and undulating texture. Evidently Hou and company filmed this scene only when a gentle wind could waft through those semi-opaque veils. When the veils were in front of the camera, they revealed flickering candles stirred by unseen breezes. Yet gentle winds at times opened up the veils and the image would appear with a new clarity. The interior shots are in effect landscapes themselves, albeit human ones. They doubtless owe a great deal to the remarkable assistance of Huang Wen-ying, Hou’s production designer.

    There were two opposing traditions in classical Chinese painting. The court painters favored urban settings and rendered human action in vibrant colors. Alternatively, the scholarly painters employed subdued colors or monochrome schemes to render lonely hermits engaging in Taoist retreats to Nature. Hou, working with Huang Wen-ying and Mark Lee, defies both of these.

    True, the exterior shots reveal craggy rocks, and the mists and the human forms are dwarfed by nature. And yes, Hou said he had an interest in landscapes only after he visited China and realized these landscapes were actually “realistic.” Still, just as the interiors look nothing like court paintings of the past, these exteriors are utterly unique. No Chinese landscape painting–no actual Chinese landscape for that matter–has a palette quite like these. In Hou’s earlier films the landscapes, while beautiful, were all undeniably real. But these are almost hyperreal. Do places in China actually look like this? If the tourism board on the mainland is hoping this film will boost visits to these stunning locales, this could very well backfire. Seeing these places in person could not match how they appear in these frames.

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    It is hard to know whether The Assassin is indeed a swordplay film (wuxia pian), that most venerated of Chinese genres. Aside from the brief instances of the Nie Yingniang, the female protagonist, jumping down from challenging but not impossible heights, and aside from one incident involving a sorcerer, this is indeed a film “grounded in the earth” as Hou himself described in the Master Class. If this is a historical film, this is most decidedly not the nationalist bluster of recent big-budgeted historical films coming out of Mainland China. This film does not flaunt flying errant knights, or celebrate the bombast of past Chinese historical glories. This is the grandeur of sheer, subtle, seemingly boundless beauty. It has to be seen, it has to be watched, it has to be experienced. It does not necessarily have to be understood.

    In the end, The Assassin is a film by Hou Hsiao-hsien, and yet it is unlike any film he has made before. It has the signature long takes, yet he seemingly has reinvented them. The fight scenes do have a great deal of editing, yet they remain oblique through both staging and montage, and strangely beautiful.

    This is the same Hou I encountered back in 1989, my first year in Taiwan. Long before I decided to become a film scholar, I was an unsuspecting viewer about to see a film called City of Sadness by a director I had never heard of before. A film I did not understand, but which I experienced at a very deep level. It is a film that changed my life. A film that was a beginning of a journey, even if I did not know it at the time. That journey continues with these words, written by a scholar who cannot really analyze what he has just experienced. He can only, slowly, emerge from an intense cinematic rapture.

    We hope to post more about the Antwerp event and Hou’s career over the next week or so. In the meantime, here is Hou at a press conference discussing his plans for his next film.

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    The Assassin (2015).

  • 最經常被人用來形容羅拔阿特曼(1925-2006)的一個字是「maverick」,一個意志堅定、不畏強權、卓爾不群的獨行者。這個字精確地勾勒出阿特曼過去半世紀裡在美國電影裡的地位,和他與荷里活的關係。

    阿特曼的電影生涯最初是從拍攝工業短片開始的。1957年,他帶著一部在家鄉肯薩斯州拍攝的低成本青春片《The Delinquents》往敲荷里活的大門,最終說服了聯美公司替他發行影片,但卻沒引起多大注意。華納公司找他拍了記錄片《占士?甸故事》(The James Dean Story,按:甸是在前一年失事死的),雖有點口碑,但荷里活對他仍不置可否。其後他轉投電視,拍攝了多齣長壽劇集(超過300小時),直到1968年始有機會再執導第二部劇情長片《登陸月球先鋒》(Countdown),但拍到一半便被華納公司中途炒掉,理由是「這笨蛋叫演員們同時說話」(大老闆積?華納語)。

    阿特曼真正的成名作,是1970年的《風流軍醫俏護士》(M.A.S.H.),那時他已45歲了(在往後的三十多年歲月裡,他一直無間斷地以各種形式進行創作,是想用努力來補償失去的時間嗎?)。《風》片「爆冷」摘下了康城影展的最佳電影金棕櫚大獎,叫好又叫座(阿特曼憑本片嬴得了『紐約客』雜誌女影評人寶蓮?姬爾 Pauline Kael的激賞;往後她對他義無反顧的支持,造就了七十年代不少影評人與電影人唇齒相依的神話式關係)。阿特曼在《風》片裡的「立足點是:戰爭是絕對荒謬的,一切人為的荒唐都無法與(之)相比,因此,影片要極盡荒唐之能事,去達致一種哭笑不分的抗議…是部神氣十足的『嬉皮』」影片,一部近於無政府主義的大兜亂活劇。」(羅卡,原載《中國學生周報》第935期。)


    《風流軍醫俏護士》的成功,很大程度上是一次陰差陽錯的結果:找阿特曼並非霍士公司的原意,而是在多名導演請辭後始拉上去的填補。阿特曼一意孤行的創作方法–特別是處裡演員們「插白」的模式–得以「過骨」(兩名男主角,伊利略?高特與當奴?修打蘭其實一度要求更換導演),也全賴霍士公司把全部注意力都投放在同時期兩部也屬戰爭題材的大製作身上(《鐵血將軍巴頓》Patton和《虎虎虎偷襲珍珠港》Tora, Tora, Tora),而無餘暇理會《風》片。不過影片大賣,阿特曼卻名成利不就,那是因為他對記者大肆批評霍士公司,導致後者把本來答應分給他的百分之五紅利也立刻取消掉。

    阿特曼對荷里活的不妥協,表現在《風》片後的每個作品身上。這些作品,一部比一部冷門和off-beat:《空中怪客》(Brewster McCloud,1970)是一個現代的希臘神話(寫人想飛的悲劇),也是一個楞小子的綺夢;《雌雄賭徒》(McCabe & Mrs. Miller,1971)是個西部片卻配上Leonard Cohen夢囈式的現代歌謠音樂,像詩也像呢喃;《幻像》(Images,1972)帶著觀眾走進一個女人的幻覺世界,最終再也分不清現實與想像;《漫長告別》(The Long Goodbye,1973)反轉了偵探電影的公式,神探馬勞最後不但徒勞無功,而且還被老友出賣,輸得一塌糊塗焦頭爛額;《像我們這般的賊》(Thieves Like Us,1974)把三十年代的犯罪世界披上青春的外衣,但影片裡的一對年輕劫匪,卻非若《雌雄大盜》(Bonnie and Clyde,1967)中的華倫?比提(Warren Beatty) 和菲?丹娜慧(Faye Dunaway) 般英偉俏麗,而是由其貌不揚的基夫?卡拉甸(Keith Carradine)和莎莉?杜華 (Sally Duvall)扮演–青春在銀幕上鮮有這樣「騎呢」;《爛賭仔與大老千》(California Split,1974)寫的是賭,但卻沒有一場教人眉飛色舞的賭局設計,有的只是意興闌姍的嗟歎;《普世歡騰樂滿城》(Nashville,1975)雖然有歌有舞,有愛情有暗殺,但三小時的篇幅、二十四個無分主、配的人物結構,卻不是人人都吃的消的事情;《西塞英雄譜》(Buffalo Bill and the Indians,1976)替印第安人翻案,把美國歷史等同娛樂表演史:都是外表風光,內裡邋遢;《三女性》(3 Women,1977)則是另一場更曖昧更晦澀的夢–意念根本就是來自阿特曼的一個夢!…




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