This is probably the most interesting comment I’ve ever heard in response to a movie:
“…it is such a stunning movie that its beauty can lull you to fall asleep one moment; yet it is such a magical piece a moment later its allure earns your undivided attention.”
However, after personally experiencing The Assassin by filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien unfold on the big screen, I now understand the truth of the comment.
The story is fairly simple, based on a short legend from the Tang Dynasty. The tale tells of a young princess abducted by a nun from her imperial family, raised to become an assassin in Weibo to kill the powerful and corrupt. After her training and failing a mission, she’s punished by being assigned to kill her own cousin Tian, the most powerful man in Weibo, who also happens to be her childhood lover.
There are only a few lines in Hou’s first wuxi film, The Assassin. Most of the time, the viewer is left listening to the sound of crickets, leaves, flowing water, and the world around the story’s characters. Together with Hou’s famous long takes and slow panning, it is not surprising to discover some moviegoers with their eyes closed. However, from my perspective it is this unhurried meditative state of The Assassin‘s which makes the movie special, in essence capturing nature and traditional Chinese landscape.
The effect is intentional. Hou Hsiao-hsien chose to shoot the film in 35mm, rather than digital. All sound, lighting, wind, fog, and environmental effects were done using practical techniques – no filters, no post-production special effects, no artificial landscapes. The crew traveled through China and Japan to find ideal landscapes to use as backdrops, waiting months for the right time to capture the trees’ leaves turning yellow, when fog would flow between the mountains, and those fleeting moments when birds would fly over a lake to create the film’s spectacular visuals. By capturing nature truthfully, the nature depicted in the film captures the viewer.
Pomo shan shui, the traditional Chinese style of landscape painting featuring layered wash brushwork, is vividly displayed in the film’s cinematography. Clouds and layers of mountains are both classic Chinese aesthetic motifs in both poetry and shan shui painting, based upon the idea that Yi – the abstract form or atmosphere – exists higher than Xing – accurate form or figure. These ideas are deeply embedded in Chinese philosophy and also projected within the film’s mise-en-scène.
Another common motif in the film with origins rooted in traditional Chinese art are waving curtains. Hou spent much effort in making these delicate curtains to play a prominent role in his historical drama. There are many scenes where characters are standing between separate layers of curtains, flowing in the foreground and background. Similarly shadows fall across actors’ faces and candlelight flickers inside a bedroom.
Some viewers are left perplexed by these quiet scenes where movement and dialogue are absent. But it’s important we as viewers are not left thinking we’re watching nothing. Hou is showing us the flowing wind, the sparkling light, the changing temperature, giving forms to unformed existence, and a context of time passing silently.
While the movie is visually glamorous, I recognized a sadness inherent throughout. At one point Yinniang tells a story about a king with a beautiful bluebird, a bird that never sings. The ruler was told when a bird sees another bird, only then will it sing. The king uses a a mirror to offer the vision of another bird in hopes of hearing its song. But upon seeing its lonely reflection in the mirror, the bird sings one last songs then dies.
In a later scene a bluebird is visible while Yinning walks alone through a birch forest with her master standing on top of a fog covered cliff top. Hou explained in a recent interview the mirror and the bluebird are “interchangeable metaphors for the self, and the deepest sadness, and loneliness…describing the emotional quality of someone living in solitude.”
The use of long takes and slow panning across the landscape communicates a strong sense of the comparison of scale between the grandiosity of nature, the ephemeral nature of human life, and the emotions of solitude.
Films need people more than stories.
Landscapes also harbor emotions.
Music can blow like the wind through a scene.
—Hirokazu Kore-eda, Things I Learned from Hou
Hou Hsiao-hsien once joked during an interview he wanted to go back in time to observe life during the Tang Dynasty. Thanks to his artistry, movie goers can experience a glimpse of those times without a time machine.