(Hou Hsiao Hsien, Taiwan/China/Hong Kong/France, 2015)
Hou's first film in 8 years is a foray into the wuxia genre, but it also remains very much within the range of aesthetic and thematic concerns he has been developing throughout his career, now 35 years running. For an artist of his caliber, and particularly one I personally admire as much as I do, it's impossible to come to his new film without heightened expectations. Therefore it's with a certain sense of relief that I can report that it's every bit as great as I'd hoped, and in several ways, a good deal better. To speak first of the images: we already knew that Hou has a singular eye for beauty. What's delightful to discover is how he has expanded his range. We see the familiar glowing, sensuous interiors, the impeccable blend of texture, light, and selective depth-of-field, his instinct for composition, all of which are aided in unfathomable ways by his longtime collaborator and fellow genius, Mark Lee Bin-ping. But here Hou fixes as brilliant and searching a gaze on the exteriors, capturing the ethereal, uncanny beauty of rural Northern China, with its mist-shrouded mountains, its groves of ghostly white birches, its forests, rivers, and lakes. A late scene that takes place on a mountain overlook, unfolding at Hou's stately pace as a cloud envelopes the surroundings, first as wispy fingers of mist and then as a field of pure white, is astonishing, soul-stirring, prompting fits of sputtering praise and leaving one to wonder if Hou has mastered dark, unspeakable forces, summoning the weather itself to do his bidding.
A slight interpolation regarding the medium of presentation: I saw The Assassin, which was shot on 35mm in approximately the Academy ratio, on an appropriately large screen, but projected digitally. I remain something of a traditionalist and a sorehead on the subject of film v. digital; while I have been duly impressed by the artistry that some directors - Jia Zhangke, Michael Mann, Godard, Resnais, et. al. - have brought to the medium, it remains, by my lights, something of a minefield. I won't delve into a full-blown rant on the subject, but will simply say that we remain stuck in a kind of aesthetic limbo, with no easy way to navigate the inevitable shifting between formats and sizes that occurs between the shooting and the exhibition. (Even digitally-captured movies can change aspects of their images when screened, and are subject to errors in framing, illumination, and resolution.) Bin-ping and Hou's images withstand their digitization admirably, but not without certain scars. The images seem to strain against their digitized fixity, which smooths out their texture, flattening and compressing them, turning the beautiful imprecision of film grain into a kind of chilly blur. There are movies that are shot on film and should stay on film, and this is one of them. I'm sure the Blu Ray will look wonderful. But for a sixty-foot screen, digital cannot make up the difference, no matter how many Ks you lob at the problem.
There is notably more story to this film than is usual for Hou, which makes sense, given that he fully embraces certain aspects of the genre. There is intrigue, sword fighting, even an appearance of the supernatural. But these elements are deployed in moderation, interspersed between the limpid scenes of daily life and repressed longing. For Hou, the rule remains: less is more (excepting beauty, in which realm Hou is an avowed maximalist.) As a result, the sudden eruptions of choreographed violence have a potency that is enough to make you flinch in your seat. While Hou still presents these scenes as being ritualistic and elegant, as per the genre, his sense of realism is never wholly absent, and they have a jarring edge of chaos to them, all the more so because of the relative stillness that surrounds them.
And Hou is ever elliptical. I won't claim to have followed the details of the story perfectly, even though, as imperial intrigue goes, the basic elements are pretty straightforward. But this is part of Hou's overall aesthetic and moral vision. He's never been all that interested in the logic of narrative. History is always present for Hou, but not in the linear sense we are used to, especially in our usual biopics and period movies, where the standard method is one of compression and linearity: the tangled strands of the past are sorted and simplified for the sake of clarity, and then condensed for emotional potency. For Hou, history comes alive in stillness, in the micro-dimension of real time, which is then suddenly interrupted by the cut. Hou is probably most celebrated as a composer of images and as a director of long, flowing scenes. But this obscures the other side of his art, which is that of the hard cut. It's easy in this case to invoke the metaphor of swordplay, so we'll yield to that temptation: Hou cuts as though with a blade, carving an experience that testifies to the discontinuity of time. A battle is given no more weight than an attendant preparing a bath. The deliberations of politicians stand on equal footing with a child playing with a butterfly, or a woman playing the zither.
It's tempting, writing from a western perspective, to make comparisons to Chinese painting, poetry, and narrative when discussing this kind of a work. I'll simply say, out of my relative ignorance in these matters, that there is in the film an exemplary commingling of simplicity and lushness, of elegance and fracture, of emotional magnitude and steely detachment. As spectators, we enter the film as if falling into a dream, where logic stalls and wanders, emotions become heightened and bewildering, and time and space lose their polarity. At times, the film felt positively like a waking dream, an experience of sensory intensity and abstraction. The world of the story - roughly, the last days of the Tang Dynasty, in the Eighth Century, is one that is hard for us to imagine, in which the smallest gesture - the way a Lord sits on his throne, or the way one fixes one's hair, or lights a candle, or drinks tea - is pregnant with meaning, suspended in ritual. Life taken to such extremes can seem ridiculous, even in its beauty. And yet it is more familiar than we imagine, given all of the signals and codes that still govern our behavior. Hou is impressed, even awed, by the rituals and the foreignness of the past, but he also sees, in his deeply modernist way, a sense of continuity with the past that can only be discerned by looking very carefully. Besides the impeccably composed frames and gestures there is also the earthy grit of peasant life, the play of children, the spontaneous joy that emerges from the most rigidly composed of dances, and the massive, overwhelming and ineluctable presence of the natural world.