Thursday, December 17, 2015

Red Is the Warmest Color

Wuxia as a film genre typically involves martial arts heroes in China hundreds of years ago, coming out in the end on top through a conflict of some opposing political forces, or revenge plot, and feature some romance or saving a family. The genre is also peaceful, at one with nature, and exhibits a zen balance of human spirituality. The heroes can also fly, acrobatically hop around, and are highly skilled at swordplay and hand to hand combat. The scores feature serene ancient Chinese instruments. I'm still new at viewing wuxia films, but I really like A Touch of Zen (1971, King Hu) and Hero (2002, Zhang Yimou). Speaking of Hero, the way it is shot, by Christopher Doyle, is one of the most interesting strategies of color cinematography--very beautiful and artful. And I also still really like House of Flying Daggers (2004, Yimou), which I saw back in '04 at the Fox Tower in PDX.

The Assassin (2015, Hou Hsiao-Hsien) is an understated, refined, minimalist feat of a masterful crafting of classical film language. When I think classical filmmaking I'm basically thinking the opposite of Michael Bay's Transformers (not that there's anything particularly wrong with those movies). For example, The Assassin is composed of very slow camera moves that are restricted to the x and y axes, whereas the Transformers films have fast camera moves, frequently along the z axis.

The prologue opens cold. It's in gorgeous high contrast black and white 35mm 1.33:1 Academy ratio, and hence several instances of an acknowledgedly classical filmmaking style. It's also as silent as if the world it takes place in is in its own vacuum.

The Assassin opens in eighth century China during the Tang dynasty with a prologue that introduces heroine YINNIANG (Shu Qi), the expert natural born killer, and her handler JIAXIN. After breezing through an assigned hit, Jiaxin follows up immediately with a subsequent target that places Yinniang spying from high in the rafters (a common wuxia motif) and gracefully anti-gravity floating down to the Governor and his infant son, which causes Yinniang to abandon this mission. Frustrated, Jiaxin assigns Yinniang to return to her home she was taken from to murder a man with strong ties to her past, TIAN JI'AN (Chang Chen).

This prologue is immediately followed by a 1.85:1 widescreen shot, in color, of PRINCESS JIACHENG in a flower garden playing an ancient zither and narrating a tale that is the foundation the film will return to throughout to establish its structure from in subtle ways (and is the only shot in The Assassin that is framed in widescreen). The King of Kophen has a bird that would not sing for three years. The Queen tells him that the bird will not sing because it is not around any of its own kind. Then the King places a small mirror in front of the bluebird, the bird sees its reflection and sings sadly for the rest of the night and dies.

The Assassin features sweeping, magnificent forests, mountain ranges, pristine flower gardens, period costumes and elegantly subdued interior domestic settings often with birds chirping off somewhere, humble content servants and staff, and young children playing ball. Tian Ji'an's family household serves as the film's dramatic core. Most of the action revolves around this home as its epicenter, and it does not take long for news of sightings of Yinniang to reach him.

And for me an ambiguity to the central conflict of The Assassin is does Yinniang hesitate from killing Tian Ji'an at first because she still loves him or because he has a wife and children and rules the people of Weibo? But we don't need this answer spelled out for us.

Sooner than we'd expect Tian Ji'an is in the master bedroom with his wife, in a sequence filmed through the silk curtains that enshroud this space, when Yinniang appears before them. Yinniang glides leaping tall buildings in a single bound to engage in a rooftop skirmish with Tian Ji'an that she clearly holds back with any intentions of mortally wounding him from.

The balance of The Assassin teeters between Yinniang's long backstoried past involving Tian Ji'an (her cousin, and planned to be her husband long ago), and the trajectory her actions will have toward the future of the Weibo province he rules and its political relation to the Imperial Court. And all of this unfolds simultaneously in hushed reverent dialogues radiating from this central intrigue in Tian Ji'an's home. The interiors are always lit warmly in contrast to the cold sometimes bluish or green foliage exteriors.

Back to the bluebird story. The actress Fang-Yi Sheu plays both Princess Jiacheng and her sister, the one time Princess Jiaxin, who became a nun and eventually the guardian of Yinniang and the one who trained her as an assassin. The Assassin balances several contrasting motifs, hence the mirror in the bluebird story. Jiacheng and Jiaxin are opposites, and through the course of the plot, it is up to Yinniang to find which one she identifies with.

Wuxia films as a genre are a lot like Hollywood westerns. Although a big difference is on the one hand westerns are dusty, sweaty, dirty yarns in arid desert settings, wuxia are immaculate, freshly laundered, clean fairytales in lush green forests. Both have horses and mountains. But those looking for intense, choreographed martial arts spectacles will be disappointed with The Assassin because instead the fight sequences are the blink and you'll miss it variety, sublimely finishing so quick you have to think for a minute to realize who won or did anyone--almost like an analog of the fastest gun in the West.

While Ji'an may be Yinniang's primary target, most of The Assassin is populated by female characters. An ongoing thread involves HUJI, a mistress that Ji'an gets pregnant and his wife uses black magic curses on out of jealousy. And as a template of the nature of the way The Assassin presents fight scenes, the gold-masked female bodyguard to the family who tracks Yinniang leading to the confrontation in the silver birch forest. Before you've caught your breath, they both pause, and ever so slightly you notice a slight slash across the gold mask. Cut to a wide of the bodyguard, with her face turned three-quarters away from us, without the mask.

After an epic concluding battle on a giant smokey mountainside, the resolution of the film occurs in a scene that opens with a shot of some goats at a farm house, in a way, balancing the opening shot of the first scene in The Assassin, a shot of two donkeys.

Filmmakers often attempt the less is more aesthetic, and I'm sure it works for many other than myself, but I'm often disappointed. But when it does work, that's when I recognize a master. And that's exactly how I feel about Hou Hsiao-Hsien with The Assassin.


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