AssassinHou-Hsiao-Hsien (HK- China2015)Shu Qi; Chang Chen
Viewed: 2 Feb 2016 Tyneside Cinema Newcastle; ticket £8.75
Smoke and mirrors
Hou’s movie at first seemed like an unfocused fairy tale, but later as I thought about it, it was more like a realisation of an I Ching hexagram or series of hexagrams. The idea of making a film that aspires to an expression of the chance fall of the yarrow stalks seems in tune with Hou’s sensibilities.
And Assassin with its use of landscape in a manner imaged and described in the I Ching hexagrams, is visually suggestive and receptive to the gaze of the viewer. Landscapes of course are flavour of the month inthe movie business, nobody is making films these days without showing the depth of their alignment with nature by boring us with long pretentious camera shots, gazings at ‘scapes.’
Hou however coming from the left fieldtradition of Chinese landscape symbolism, makes these shots work in a way that neither Tarantino nor Inarritu can even approach.The shots call up states of mind, resonating with the underlying contemplative nature of his film and the symbolic relations suggested.
Of course the idea that the I Ching hexagrams shape sections of Hou’s movie is probably my own projection, but nevertheless hexagrams aside, there is a strong Chinese lore relating landscape to awareness insight and inspiration, and Hou draws on this in folding scapes into Assassin.
Just for the hell of it I looked up one hexagram of mountain over lake, and was informed as follows:
Mountain over Lake.
At the foot of the mountain, the lake
The image of decrease.
The superior man controls his anger
and restrains his instincts.
Coincidence or not the above description carries something of the motif underlying the narrative shaping the film’s form.
I haven’t seen many of Hou’s films: Good Man Good Woman, Daughter of the Nile spring to mind. From what I have seen Hou’s films work through elliptical relations between people.He is not interested in the soap opera style of crude motivational matrixes that comprise most of Hollywood and Europe’s current scripting output.Understatement and ambiguities lie at the heart of his scenarios. But I think Assassin as an attempt to transpose this sensibility of relations on to fairy tale like or mythic form, doesn’t work.Whether I Ching or fairy/myth story the forces put in play are archetypes, and the states of mind that interest Hou and seem endemic in his scripting, are not archetypal, and don’t sit comfortably with the film’s main characters.His characters, theeponymous Assassin and her quarry never escape a certain woodenness in the expressions of their roles, a mechanicality that contradicts the relational ambiguities that are part of the script.
It doesn’t actually matter that, to my understanding, the details of the script were ungraspable.It matter’s more that Shu Qi’s ‘good assassin’ character never expresses any clarity of intention in relation to her actions.She utters reasons for her behaviour but they remain at the level of utterances, she fails to deliver any suggestion of an internality, a drive at the heart of her role.This I suspect is not her doing but the script and Hou’s doing.As if he wanted to replace projected internalisation with externalisations of acting and shooting style.For instance Shu Qi as actress is simply asked to reverttothatold film acting stand-by of: ‘staring out’ with severe intent, eyes hard and unblinking at crucial moments in the film.This is an old directorial resort: keep the audience on the surface of the eye anddupe them in thinking the shot has meaning.But the repetition of this look incurs decreasing returns, and finally reduces to a meaningless cliché.
Aside from the landscape shots which have power in respect of suggesting underlying forces, Hou with his story looks to the shooting style, décor make up and shot set up as a means to work in the suggestion of some deeper level of sensability at work in the scenario.So we have long beautiful if sometimes tendentious tracking shots through diaphanous drapes, gorgeous red shots, wonderful cozzies, fabuolous haircuts, reflections, scenes with a bewhiskerd necromancer who looks like an escapee from Lord of the Rings. But none of these types of shots do anything more than extend the surface of the movie.And the surface of this movie compared to other of Hou’s films I have seen is a mechanical tread through his fairy tale like material.Lacking Hou’s attention to emotionally ambiguous relations,it is a film that fails deliver anything more than vacuous spectacle which is of course grist to the mill of the movie industry.
The film’s style seems a deliberate effort to compensate for the script’s weakness.
Hou does not understand how to marshal integrate or summon forces he sets into play. Like an old magician Hou resorts to smoke and mirrors to disguise the contradictions that he cannot reconcile in his material; and smoke and mirrors is not a hexagram.