Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Oct 08, 2015 1:05 pm 
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Hou's exquisitely leaden refinement of a truncated martial arts epic

You may not grasp the plot in watching (nothing new in a fancy wu xia film, though Hou Hsi-hsien is seeking to redefine it). It's the end of the Tang Dynasty and provincial lords challenge the royal court. An exile, Nie Yinning (Shi Qi), has grown up into an invincible female assassin charged with destroying her former fianceé (Chang Chen). Some of our time is spent watching Yinning at work tearing people up. More of it is spent in royal interiors watching palace denizens talk about her and other matters. Sit tight. It's a slow ride. In between, there are some really nice landscape shots.

When D'Angelo says in his Cannes bulletin for The Dissolve about Hou Hsio-hsien's exquisite but leaden version of a wu xia movie, The Assassin, that his favorite Hou so far "is the first segment of Three Times, mostly because it feels more like Wong Kar-wai than like Hou," I absolutely know what he means. I have tried hard to appreciate if not like Hou, even though it was completely no-go at first. What he has now done with the most vigorous and popular Chinese movie genre with this seven-year project can't be liked, only appreciated, along with the uneasy feeling that in watching it one may have become permanently molded to one's cinema seat -- even though The Assassin is actually less than two hours long. This film is gorgeous and sui generis, but it's a stinker.

It's easy to ooh and ah over its elaborate costumes in lovely color combinations, its stream of razor-sharp landscape images that evoke the aesthetics of antique scroll paintings. But there is nothing here to be enjoyed as an old-fashioned, wildly energetic, borderline nutty movie experience -- the very thing that wu xia has always reliably provided. The story is curiously truncated, robbed of both the logic and the climaxes of the usual wu xia film. Hou has taken a lot out, and put nothing else in. In a majority of scenes we are with a royal family that the female assassin is, or is not, out to get. Deliciously dressed Tang dynasty aristocrats, the ruling women with the most elaborate hairdos you've ver seen outside Louis XIV Versailles, they all talk very very slowly, and in very, very low Quaalude-calm voices to each other, or perhaps to nobody in particular. This is a kind of epic effect -- to slow things down -- but true epic requires excitement, heightened tone, a sense of grandeur, and that is lacking.

What of the fights -- the core of the genre? In the abrupt stop-start of the film structure, they turn out to be barely a blip on one's mental screen. Hou himself (in the NYFF press screening Q&A) has explained that his female protagonist's choice of a short blade for her fighting, determined the speeded up nature of the battles. Her opponents have long blades so she has to get in very close, attack fast, get out very fast. So the fights must take place at breakneck speed. He eschews the flying-through-the-air stuff using wires and trampolines or CGI because, well, in real life things didn't happen that way. Wait a minute: "real life"? It's curious that Hou sees this film as in some wary more "realistic." It is as elaborately artificial as any other examples of the genre, just more pared down, slowed down, and "tasteful." The speeded up combat bears an unfortunate resemblance to those current films of various kinds in which fighting is fudged, where you can't see the arms and the follow-throughs, and the whole value is lost.

The fighting, done by non-pros, is a misfire; so is the playing around with format. Hou opens in black and white Academy ratio, switches to color in the same ratio, opens up wider, then shrinks back some. One expects there to be some meaningful resolution of these format-shifts, but none arrives.

Justin Chang says in his reservedly admiring Cannes review for Variety, that in The Assassin Hou "boldly merges stasis and kinesis." Yes, there are odd jumps back and forth between the two, for sure; but it's always the stasis that wins out.

Hou has injected great gobs of good taste, but taste in a genre film a sort of oxymoron -- though at the same time beauty in popular Chinese cinema -- beauty of actors, costumes, landscapes, cinematography -- has become such a staple it's kitsch.

In The Assassin Hou delivers something very pretty, very elegant, but drained of life. His film is seriously unfun -- but by the same token, perfect for his most adoring fans, the cultish festival cinephiles who want nothing more than to be shown a movie no mainstream audience member would understand or tolerate.

If, as Justin Chang says, this will bring Hou a wider audience in the West, this is a hollow achievement, like, indeed, the perhaps wider audiences for Wong Kar-wai's last couple of films. Both have sunk deeper into decadence and drifted away from the impulses that first made their work personal and unique. The blurb calls The Assassin "gloriously beautiful in its candle-lit sumptuous red and gold decor as Hou’s 1998 masterpiece, Flowers of Shanghai. True, and with more refined technique. But due to the intervention of Hou's stilted effort to redefine a genre that is foreign to him, this decor no longer had the uniquely personal feel it had in the 1998 film. Needless to say, though, Hou's and Wong's ever-more-elaborate failures are still more interesting than most directors' successes, and must be experienced, however dispiriting that may be.

The Assassin/刺客聶隱娘, 105 mins., debuted in Competition at Cannes May 2015, where it won Hou Hsio-hsien the Best Director award, and was included in 18 or so other international film festivals. It was screened for this review as part of the New York Film Festival, Oct. 2015. Limited US release (Well Go) 16 Oct. (Metacritic rating 86%); France 9 Mar. 2016.



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