the assassin (2015)
For a brief few minutes of Hou Hsiao-Hsien's The Assassin, the screen is formatted for 1.85:1. During this time, Hou presents a microcosm of the film in its entirety; a slow, melancholy strumming of strings eventually giving way to a story. A bird that won't sing but to its own kind, and when placed in front of a mirror, sings to itself of its loneliness and then expires. Soldiering through the trials and tribulations of life, fighting our battles, keeping our loyalty; hardening our shell and numbing our senses, these are the means of survival in The Assassin. The moment we really see ourselves, allow ourselves to realize our vulnerability, we crack the facade and die from the feeling of it all. The Assassin is the kind of film for which the cinema was made, the kind of meditative journey that doesn't rely too heavily on any of its elements, instead blending them into a dreamscape of valleys and peaks, chambers and expanses. An empathetic experience, human moments that are exactly personal, completely shunning any attempt to be universal, because they could only be shared and experienced by our characters on screen. Rather than identify or feel for them, we are meant to feel the elements: the wind through the leaves, the wind as it blows the sheer curtains that cover our lens, obstructing our view of the characters and showing us the air itself instead, the way it moves. Fog plays heavily in its visuals, air made visible to our eyes, smoke and, of course, our central character, our assassin, who seems to float and glide like the wind, a supernatural kind of grace and strength. She discards her mission based on what her masters call weakness, allowing her callous exterior to become softened, to become vulnerable, weakness for some, humanity for others. Hou follows the same path, crafting an action film that defies its genre conventions at every turn. Rather than delve into the tenets of strength and bravado, of the honor of combat or any other touchstone, Hou instead allows himself as a director to become vulnerable within a hardened genre.
In this way, The Assassin becomes about everything beside its own plot. The plot seems a worldly concern kept to our characters. Their hopes and dreams, their rivalries between clans, their living and their dying; all are unregarded by the trees that stand by through time, the mountains, the whole living world all around them. The fringe elements, the air, the waters, the underlying influence of magic and the supernatural on our characters' lives all have their moment in the spotlight of our lens. Hou imbues the film with visuals most sublime, we're left to piece the dramatic movements of our players together as it plays out. The tense drama, the pensive pauses, the flurry of action seamlessly combine into one form. The plot becomes the world that is forced upon the characters while the underlying stillness is the true nature of their reality that they could tap into if they would but listen. This never happens, of course, as the warring clans vie for dominance. When they come upon the old man whose powers for black magic and casting spells has been revealed, they deliver him a swift end by arrow rather than investigate further. People and their actions are assessed for their threat level and dealt with accordingly. Only our central character seems immune as she enters and exits the scene at will, floating amongst the breeze and watching from a distance or perhaps delivering her message. In this film, she is lonesome, like the bluebird. Her master attacks her to bring her back to her 'strength' learned through her rigorous training, her betrothed cousin attacks her in defense each time their paths cross. Her inability to kill him is never truly examined, like all elements of the film it is a force of nature unto itself, we are never privy to the interior lives of our characters, Hou barely even gives us a closeup, instead keeping us always firmly on the other side of the scene from our players. The action is only traditional when the mortal characters seem to fight one another, when our central assassin is involved, she glides through the scene like a blade.
Hou's best visuals come from his open expanses or his obstructed interiors, each giving us the notion that though the human beings inhabit his frame and are relentlessly focused on themselves and their transgressions, they are of little consequence to the real focal point of our lens. Hou crafts a masterful sequence of imagery that flows from one scene to the next. Like filming moving water, we are focused on the water itself, not the fish swimming in it. Hou's only missteps come from any hinting that we are meant to be involved in the lives of the characters, this mood piece needs figures performing actions and not living breathing, flesh and blood characters of dimension to care about. With the film's conclusion, he hints that we can see some form of redemption arc or overall change in the life of our assassin, though it adds little to his tapestry and ultimately lessens the film's impact. What The Assassin does well is to let us marinate in the sounds of the Earth, the music that humans make, the songs we sing, sung to ourselves of our loneliness and not for any other. The music that humans play for themselves or for others seems to be in pursuit of drowning out the silence, the wind, the loneliness. Hou dares to bring us into the lonely and vulnerable with his take on the action film. We are not thrilled, we are merely swept along as the tides of time crash onto the shore with little noticeable force, they simply flow in the natural rhythms of the world. The Assassin calls little attention to itself, nor does it command ours, it breezes by us and can only be heard if we listen.