Neither Fish Nor Fowl: The Assassin movie review
So the first time I saw Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s new and much-lauded film The Assassin, which opened this past week across North America, I had just finished a grueling day of teaching, meetings, grant-writing, and other tiring teacherly stuff. I was looking forward to seeing the movie after the huge buzz it gotten after its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, where Hou won the Best Director award for the film. But when I saw the movie I found myself distinctly underwhelmed, and I found myself shifting in my seat and fighting to stay awake throughout the screening.
Since the movie had gotten such overwhelmingly good notices at Cannes I thought that I should give it a second chance so I watched it again, this time when I was alert and well-rested. Alas, I must be more of a philistine than I thought because once again I found myself nodding off in the middle of the movie and checking the time to gauge how much more I would have to endure.
So what gives? Have I been watching too many Korean gangster movies and Hong Kong action films? Have my tastes become completely crass and commercial? Have I become I so immune to the sensibilities of the finest in world cinema that I can no longer appreciate a great film when it comes along? I’ve sat through and enjoyed more than one multi-hour Lav Diaz extravaganza, I relished Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, and I loved the Mizoguchi retrospective I saw last year, so I know about slow cinema. And I’ve seen and liked past Hou films such as City of Sadness, Flowers of Shanghai, and Millenium Mambo. As an art school survivor I also cut my teeth on experimental film, from Stan Brakhage to Deborah Stratman and beyond, so I know from alternative cinema. So why didn’t The Assassin rock my world?
In some ways The Assassin is one big ol’ experimental narrative, albeit a very high-budget and elaborate one. Like many experimental filmmakers, in The Assassin Hou eschews conventional cinematic language—many of the takes in the film begin or end with thirty or forty seconds of stasis, as characters stand around gazing pensively or fiddling with hair accessories. At times Hou’s camera lingers on a gorgeous stand of trees reflected in a shimmering lake, while at other times it focuses on a goat’s asshole, each image as lovingly framed and lit as the other. Characters monologue at one another, revealing key plot points and explaining intricate court intrigue with theatrical gestures and vocalizations. The costumes are beautiful and ornate, with elaborate facial hair and up-do’s to match. These quirks demonstrate Hou’s intent in deconstructing filmic conventions and shaking up the way we see, or as he notes in a recent interview, his interest in “let(ting) the film go further, always further.” At the same time Hou works within the framework of a familiar genre, the wuxia (loosely translated as martial arts or swordplay) film, to which the viewer brings a certain set of expectations. This is especially true of Western viewers who only know martial arts from a limited type of genre film and who don’t have the knowledge of classical or popular wuxia stories in literature or folklore. So folks who go see The Assassin hoping to see a kick-ass kung fu flick (or even something more thoughtful like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon) are most likely bound to be disappointed.
I applaud Hou’s audacity in exploding the audience’s expectations but at the same time I was curiously unmoved by the film and found it fairly impenetrable. Sure, it’s pretty to look at but it’s not a huge magnitude more beautiful than, say, your average commercial movie from South Korea, which have pretty much set the standard for cinematic gorgeousness these days. Somehow all of the experimentation in form, combined with miniscule character development and a very slow and deliberate pacing, muffles any visceral effect beyond the film’s immediate visual beauty. That beauty, while laudable, wasn’t enough to sustain my attention for the film’s running time and even after two viewings I remained for the most part unengaged. Still, the film shows much more intelligence and creative curiosity than pretty much all of Hollywood’s output from the past year put together, so if you go into The Assassin with your expectations suspended you may come out of it enlightened in more ways than one.
opens Oct. 23
AMC Metreon in San Francisco
Landmark Clay in San Francisco
Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley
Landmark Guild in Palo Alto
Camera 3 in San Jose