• 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).

  • 金色梦乡 - [师夷长技]

    2010/12/07

    日本有两部著名小说是以披头士的单曲命名的:挪威森林和金色梦乡。

    我很厌恶前者,也很厌恶村上春树,这本书自恋、矫情,致使我连村上其他的书也没兴趣看了。

    我很喜欢伊版幸太郎这哥们,有想象力,黑色幽默,玩世不恭。

    而且他和我有一个共同点,爱看电影。

    《金色梦乡》有一个很棒的结尾,在今年看过的小说里,堪与《龙纹身的女孩》媲美。

  • 《坏人们》 - [师夷长技]

    2010/11/06

    精彩。

    超越零的焦点的松本清张。大师,折服。

    每次阅读松本清张就会感到东野圭吾和宫部美幸的火候还不够。

  • 贫民富翁能在今年强手如林的情况下,勇夺数项大奖,我心里是有些不服气的。

    今天偷偷猫起来看了,心里还是很佩服,不要冷静下来想这个故事有多扯淡,问题在于如何把这种梦一样的故事拍的扣人心弦才是最难的。虽然我告诉自己,这情节太假了,但我仍然被爱情所感动,只能说,导演把人内心对于虚假爱情梦想的渴求抓准了。

    确实,情节的理想程度削弱了本片的艺术价值,但是这正是奥斯卡的宗旨——造梦。专家?艺术?还是先靠边站吧。如果导演都像杨德昌,好莱坞就别吃饭了。

    在技术上,在立意上,在爱情模式上,都是奔着得奖去的,这么交圈的一部“得奖相”作品,想不得奖都难。

  • 说说马丁斯科塞斯吧,这位导演算是纽曼的晚辈,马丁谈起纽曼也是一脸的崇拜:

    “我和自己的偶像人物只合作过一次。保罗·纽曼出演了我1986年推出的[金钱本色],扮演把汤姆·克鲁斯带坏的台球经纪人。我花了一段时间,才学会怎么和纽曼交流。伍迪·艾伦把这种现象叫做“21岁以下综合症”,他认为所有你在21岁之前在银幕上看到的人,都会让你感到紧张。听到这话,我想笑。但对偶像的崇敬确实会对工作构成影响。片中有一处纽曼面部的推进特写镜头,表现他听到台球碰撞声音的表情。纽曼完全吃透了角色当时的复杂心理,用不着我对他废口舌。当我在样片里看到这个画面时,我暗想:噢,上帝!这就是美国的偶像。”

    不管怎么说,其他导演不管铸造了多么灿烂辉煌的纽曼,让纽曼真正把男主角小金人捧回家的,是马丁斯科塞斯。

    我还想插一句,《金钱本色