Dispatching back to the New York Times from Cannes, Manohla Dargis reports that “Hou Hsiao-Hsien blew the roof off one of the biggest theaters here with The Assassin, a staggeringly lovely period film set in ninth-century China. Shu Qi, the star of several of Mr. Hou’s more recent films (and the first Transporter movie), plays Nie Yinniang, who returns to her provincial home after years of being trained in the murderous arts by a nun-sorceress. Filled with palace intrigue, expressive silences, flowing curtains, whispering trees and some of the most ravishingly beautiful images to have graced this festival, The Assassin held the Wednesday-night audience in rapturous silence until the closing credits, when thunderous applause and booming bravos swept through the auditorium like a wave.”
“In the seven years since Hou Hsiao-hsien began working on a ninth-century wuxia epic, his admirers have been madly curious about how the Taiwanese auteur known for such refined historical panoramas as Flowers of Shanghai and minor-key urban portraits like Café Lumière would handle his rite of passage into one of China’s most storied and vigorous popular genres,” writes Variety‘s Justin Chang. “We have the answer at long last in The Assassin, a mesmerizing slow burn of a martial-arts movie that boldly merges stasis and kinesis, turns momentum into abstraction, and achieves breathtaking new heights of compositional elegance: Shot for shot, it’s perhaps the most ravishingly beautiful film Hou has ever made, and certainly one of his most deeply transporting.”
“The final spark of passion I was looking for was more a delicate firefly which floated entrancingly but elusively ahead,” writes the Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw. “But there is no doubt that The Assassin… is a movie of great intelligence and aesthetic refinement; there is majesty and mystery in this film, particularly in the visually remarkable final minutes, when its enigmatic power begins a kind of final ascent. Hou is concerned to do something new with the wuxia genre, to take it to the next level in his own language, and I think he is more successful here than Wong Kar-wai was with his The Grandmaster. He has brought to the wuxia material his own uncompromising seriousness, and welded this seriousness to the form’s mythic resonance.”
“The pacing is geologically slow,” writes Jessica Kiang at the Playlist, but the “story becomes a moment-to-moment thing, and epic visual poem concerned with the putting on of an earring or the setting of a bath or the gradual obscuring of a cliffside by a cloud that roils up from far below while a woman in white is approached by a woman in black on a green mountain.”
“Filmmakers including Zhang Yimou, Ang Lee and Bernardo Bertolucci can eat their hearts out, because The Assassin involves the most extravagant, intricately detailed, extraordinarily beautiful recreation of the interiors, décor, dress and manners of imperial China that has ever likely been put on film,” writes Barbara Scharres at RogerEbert.com. “This is a martial arts film only in the sense that there are several confrontations involving swordplay. With the exception of a minor use of slow motion, these scenes are filmed in real time and are set within the human limits of actual martial arts practice. There is no high-flying wirework, no superhuman feats of strength and duration; no big action set pieces…. Interiors are designed to reveal layer upon layer of depth through the use of filmy curtains, tapestries, rooms that look into other rooms, and open up beyond to a glimpse of exterior landscape. His landscapes have the look of Chinese brush paintings, and are layered horizontally in the frame, with strip of sky, jagged mountains, ethereal banks of mist, and muted striations of turf.”
The Hollywood Reporter‘s Deborah Young notes that “at $15 million,” this is Hou’s “largest-budgeted project to date…. One surprise is that Hou is not shooting in anything resembling widescreen, but a modest, nearly square format that limits the number of actors who can fit into the frame. It’s a gamble that pays off in extra vertical space, which lets him exploit soulful natural locations and create images that pleasurably recall Chinese period paintings. The second shock is that exceptional D.P. Mark Lee Ping-bing is shooting in deep black and white, which is wisely dropped for bright color beginning with the next scene.”
“Hou Hsiao-Hsien proudly made the epic Flowers of Shanghai (1998) with just 31 cuts,” adds Allan Hunter in Screen. “He has clearly moderated his minimalist approach for The Assassin which mixes shots of measured, distanced observation with some elegantly choreographed and edited bursts of wuxia action. It isn’t always easy to follow the politics of The Assassin but it does look an absolute treat. The film revels in the daily details of long ago lives and the fabulous costumes from Hwarng Wern-Ying assault the sense with their deep crimsons, lush greens and rich gold brocades.”
Back to the New York Times, where Amy Qin has spoken with Hou and come away with this: “Admirers of Mr. Hou’s work may be pleased to know that the director does not plan to wait another eight years to make his next film. ‘There are so many movies I want to make,’ he said. ‘Even just in terms of Taiwan’s history the possibilities are endless.’ He added that he was already in talks to make a film about the Taiwanese Communist Party under Japanese and later Kuomintang rule.”
A few related reads I’d like to point to one more time here:
David Bordwell James Udden‘s 2013 reports from the set and, here in Keyframe, Michael Pattison on Hou Hsiao-hsien, an anthology edited by Richard I. Suchenski, and a roundup on the recent traveling retrospective, Also Like Life: The Films of Hou Hsiao-hsien.
Updates: “In certain respects the most conventional movie Hou has made in decades, The Assassin is also enigmatic in ways some will find absolutely mesmerizing, and others might think is infuriating,” writes Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at the AV Club. “Most of Hou’s major works have been conscious period pieces, even the ones set in the present. (Millennium Mambo, which this movie recalls in unusual ways, was narrated from the future, for instance.) Here, he approaches the world of wuxia fiction as one of haunting beauty—it’s hard to overstate just how sharply gorgeous this movie is—and purity, which resonate across time, but are ultimately unknowable and difficult to grasp.”
The Assassin “ranks among the most beautiful movies ever made,” grants Mike D’Angelo at the Dissolve. “My issue with Hou’s films is that they’re fundamentally pictorial, and that’s not what excites me about cinema. Each shot is a discrete syntactic unit; rarely do successive shots relate to each other. And when the camera moves, it’s almost always in a creeping lateral motion that seems entirely unmotivated…. Clearly, Hou could have made a kinetic, thrilling action movie had he wanted to do so. He didn’t. I respect that, but I’d much rather look at stills from this film than watch it again.”
“The first thing that strikes you in The Assassin is the quiet,” writes Ben Croll at Twitch. “Be it dialogue, sound-effects or music, at no point does the pitch of the film register beyond a whisper. All the better, I suppose, to lead you into a hypnotic lull. All the better, because anything else would detract from the film’s true stars: color and light.”
More on that from Manohla Dargis, who’s followed up on yesterday’s dispatch with a chat with Hou. He tells her that “the film’s astonishing palette was largely achieved in situ with natural lighting instead of filters or post-production tweaking. Of course you can play around with color, he said, but the reason he wanted to shoot in these places was to capture the light and beauty…. Mr. Hou said that he didn’t rehearse the film, which is fairly astonishing given the precision of the camerawork and how bodies move through his space in it. Instead, Mr. Hou sets up the two (Arri) cameras and lets the performs work it out. If it succeeds, then that’s the shot that they use. ‘But if it doesn’t,’ Mr. Hou explained, he ‘will shift the image based on what they’re working with.’ He doesn’t pressure them to be ‘so technical’ when they’re shooting, and that’s the ‘way he’s always worked.’ … In the United States, he continued, the filmmaking thought process is that it’s all ‘going to be done in the editing suite’ at the end. ‘It’s not about the performance, it’s about the edit.’ For him, this changes the very nature of the film. ‘There’s something in a long shot, an essence,’ Mr. Hou said, that he can’t really describe. I suggested that it was life itself, and then it was time for us to say goodbye.”
Updates, 5/23: This is “far and away the best film in competition in Cannes,” declares Daniel Kasman in the Notebook. It “feels like the condensation and purification of something long lived with by all involved…. The Assassin is so beautiful I really cannot properly convey it without other cinematic reference (a taste: Princess Yang Kwei-Fei, Josef von Sternberg, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Black Narcissus, King Hu’s All the King’s Men, Jauja).” Further in:
Action is the counterpoint to this measured flow of images and incident, told not as radically as one might of hope from a director whose style is so distinctive, but rather is told as a direct contradiction to the world as we’ve previously seen it: what was slow, shot from a distance over time and from one side of the room is, during the film’s fights, several very striking, told very quickly in cuts that show one side, and then reverse the angle. We never see such reverse shots in the film except in these fights—but for perhaps the most important scene in the film, when Nie Yinniang spies on Tian with his wife. Without a doubt one of the most exquisite sequences in cinema, Hou takes the guttering candles and billowing curtains that inundate the palace and fill the frame with constant movement and activity and literally places these dynamic, decorative elements between us and the couple. The images, vibrant colors layered in depth, Josef von Sternberg himself would have died to achieve, the translucent gauze of the curtains flowing over and out of our view, glowing out of focus luminesce of candles likewise obscuring and drowning our vision. They are unforgettable images crystalizing the gap, the distance, between Nie Yinniang and Tian in time, social status, life, and love, transmuting image into something so soft, alive and far away.
“In a competition otherwise marked by compromise and caution, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s austere, astounding The Assassin feels like it’s been beamed in from another era entirely, even as its heavily saturated, aggressively digital images carry an undeniably modern gleam,” writes James Lattimer at the House Next Door. “Formally entrancing, narratively confusing, and frequently sublime, Hou’s take on the wuxia martial-arts genre is bracingly singular, a captivating lesson from a true master on all the things that can be controlled within the frame…. In terms of The Assassin‘s narrative convolutions, you might ask ultimately why things need to be so opaque. Yet the withholding of much of the necessary information to grasp what’s happening and who’s who actually has a paradoxically liberating effect…. And if a looser, more open-ended sense of progression does indeed emerge, it carries with it a blissful, almost abstract generality: What does it mean to leave one space and enter another? When does one strike and when does one not? Where does one role stop and another begin?”
“Indeed, it is a measure of the film’s astonishing formal audacity and breathtaking elegance that we don’t actually feel any need for a clearer narrative,” agrees Geoff Andrew, writing for Sight & Sound. “Hou constantly makes us feel almost as if we’re watching something we’ve never seen before.”
“The allusions to genre convention are so scarce, it’s like Hou is re-inventing the form from its primordial constituents just to suit his uniquely lugubrious mode,” writes David Jenkins at Little White Lies. “Yet the greatness of The Assassin comes from the feeling that, visually, everything is in its right place, and that Hou is somehow directing the wind, directing the billowing smoke, directing the flames from candles, directing the dance of curtains and drapes, directing the leaves shimmering on the trees, directing the sounds of the forest, directing the noises that faintly emanate from rooms behind rooms behind rooms. He doesn’t tell a story so much as he creates a world, places you inside it and then snatches away your roadmap.”
The Assassin is not only “the quietest, most introspective and deliberately-paced film in competition,” it’s also “a feat so rare and radical it casually revolutionized decades of filmmaking tradition,” writes Zhuo-Ning Su at the Film Stage.
“It is one of the most purely beautiful films I have ever seen,” concurs the Telegraph‘s Robbie Collin. Tim Grierson for Paste: “It’s such an ambitious, visually stunning piece of cinema that I half assume it’s my own failing that I didn’t wholly succumb to its wonders.” More from Donald Clarke (Irish Times, 4/5), Elena Razlogova (PopMatters) and Marc van de Klashorst (International Cinephile Society).
Updates, 5/24: “A work of pure cinema, every shot in The Assassin is a masterpiece in itself,” declares Adam Cook at Movie Mezzanine. “Hou weaves this rich but subdued story in the most mysterious of ways. Dialogue scenes reveal plenty of details, and yet it is the stares and movements of characters that tells their story. The dynamic between an oppressed province and the Chinese empire perhaps evokes Hou’s native Taiwan and its history. The dense peripheral details of The Assassin’s own narrative and its political and historical context magnify the comparably modest dilemma facing its protagonist; the silent decisions of an individual are tied to the fabric of unfolding history.”
The Voice‘s Stephanie Zacharek: “Hou uses very few close-ups here, preferring to tell his story mostly through movement: combat, dance, the act of moving through a landscape of satiny green firs or silvery birch trees and just watching. Shu conveys complicated feelings—longing, regret, anxiety—with little more than the tilt of her chin or the set of her shoulders. The Assassin is the slowest martial-arts movie in the East, and that’s a wonderful thing.”
Update, 5/27: Zhuo-Ning Su has taken part in a roundtable conversation with Hou for the Film Stage.
Updates, 6/6: It was James Udden, author of the first book in English on Hou’s career, No Man an Island: The Cinema of Hou Hsiao-hsien, and not David Bordwell who wrote that 2013 set report. Udden took part in Just-Noticeable Differences: The Cinema of Hou Hsiao-Hsien, a symposium held at the end of May in Belgium, where The Assassin was screened. Though the title of the symposium is taken from a phrase Bordwell has used in his work on Hou, Borwell himself was unable to attend. He has, though, posted Udden‘s initial response to the film. “For those who seek the comforts of linear narratives, The Assassin, comprised of images and shots so ravishing, so exquisitely wrought, so overwhelming in their layered details, will smack of empty formalism,” he warns. “But if you’re open to the deftly poetic, or rather to defiant poetic obliqueness, and if you’re willing to follow cinema beyond the confines of narrative, you will encounter a film unlike any others–including other Hou films.”
“I had prepared a talk, dammit, and I chafed at the prospect of junking it.” So Bordwell has revised the talk, opening it up to an audience of more than just “Hou specialists,” and posted it:
Update, 6/7: “Hou spoke about his passion for wuxia, its resonant themes and his stylistic approach during an interview after The Assassin premiered on the Croisette for critics and industry professionals,” and Glenn Heath Jr. has the Q&A at RogerEbert.com.
Updates, 6/13: “It’s true, as some predictably complained, that Hou’s fondness for narrative ellipses and disdain for close-ups makes it tricky to diagram the relationships among the characters,” grants Dennis Lim, writing for Artforum. “But the masterful layering of sensory effects… has the effect of sharpening a sympathetic viewer’s subliminal attention. As always in Hou, what remains unspoken—the invisible forces and secret passions governing the characters—emerges with a stealthy clarity. Readable as an allegory about present-day China-Taiwan relations, The Assassin is above all pure cinema: a hallucinatory interplay of color, movement, and light and a mesmerizing study of bodies in space.”
Jordan Cronk for Reverse Shot: “Almost nothing about The Assassin, from its stately demeanor to its hypnotic rhythm to its sublime serenity, seems apt for the bustling setting of Cannes, though it’s the film I imagine will one day be most closely associated with this year’s festival.”
Update, 7/16: In the Notebook, Daniel Kasman and Adam Cook have a few questions for Hou: “Basically, this film is a love story. My love story is… one without love. Love is always with obstacles, love is not what we imagine. It is very rare that a couple could go through this and get married. If love was easy, then there would be neither literature nor drama—nor cinema.”