We excitedly countdown to the 72nd Festival de Cannes with a different prize winning film each day.
Cìkè Niè Yǐnniáng / The Assassin, 2015
Prix de la mise en scène – Hou Hsiao-hsien
Cannes Soundtrack Award – Lim Giong
If Ang Lee reconfigured Western expectations of the Wuxia movie with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it was his fellow Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao Hsien who would come to offer a more radical reconfiguration of what the genre can represent with The Assassin. An artistic dialect unto itself in its measured melding of Hou’s signature restraint and richness of style. With the vivid flourishes of the martial arts movie, this is a film whose uniqueness is defined by its grand convergence of form, gesture, presentation and purpose.
“Exhibiting such care and precision as to turn their vocation into a practical form of poetry.”
Upon premiering at the 68th Cannes Film Festival in 2015, its general critical acclaim was nevertheless tempered by the plain fact that such a singular expression of artistry would not, indeed could not be for everyone. Yet few individual titles to date this century can claim to have exerted such a remarkable influence on how artists and cinephiles alike regard the medium of cinema and its boundless artistic potential.
Hou relates his artistry through his own procedures as an artist, and in his depiction of procedure and ceremony in his work. The assassin as director, as more than just a technician, a facilitator. But also as a maverick, deploying their skills to creative ends, exhibiting such care and precision as to turn their vocation into a practical form of poetry.
The Assassin is wonderfully whole and perfectly precise itself, a depiction of precision that is brilliant merely in being the brilliant application of the talents of brilliant artists. The isolated, honed, contained application of this application and the breadth of Hou’s ability to control and to connect the exact meaning and purpose of every element of his movies are so divine. One feels privileged to be granted the opportunity to witness their product. Watching The Assassin feels like a gift of which we, the audience, can be but utterly unworthy.
“Everything about it works to a level of infallibility.”
This is an immensely, integrally, pretty much unthinkably gorgeous movie, not simply in its imagery alone, but in the manner in which this imagery is presented. Hou and master cinematographer Lee Ping Bin turn their exquisite creations into the movie’s very text – style becoming substance, and in such marvellous, intricately ornate splendour as to be the definition of cinematic substance itself.
This is an achievement shared among all departments in The Assassin’s production. That imagery has been justly celebrated, but there’s not any single aspect of this movie that doesn’t fulfil the artistic mandate established by the precedent that any other aspect sets. Sound design, set dressing, editing, even the sparingly-employed dialogue, everything about it works to a level of infallibility.
I’ve seen The Assassin only once – at the London Film Festival in October 2015, roughly five months after it premiered at Cannes. There are details of it that I’ll never forget. The thrilling, jarring edits in the wooded fight sequence. The juxtaposition of delicateness and grandeur in court-set scenes. The shot of… well, just about any shot.
“The Assassin is a most wondrous experience, a gift indeed.”
The famed mountain-top one complete with its extraordinary meteorological intervention. The rafters one with its stillness and subtle surprise. The opening title one in red hues so bold following the monochromatic beginning that you hardly want the movie to move past it – just hold on that river for two hours and let us sink in!
A particular shot took my breath away for the simplicity of its construction and execution and the magnitude of its impact in the moment. An interior of lush, warm red tones becomes an exterior of cool, vibrant blues in a change so bold you almost feel a chill come over you. And it’s all achieved by the movement of the actors within the frame – no lighting adjustments, no camera pan, no post-production effects. Just plain old blocking and a shift in the viewer’s perspective.
How Hou can so profoundly change the direction of his movie, or the features of its effect on its audience, with no more than a brief music cue (from one of cinema’s most versatile and underrated composers, Lim Giong), a short speech, or no more than moving his actors to a different part of the shot (as above), is indication of the sublime power he has over cinema. The seemingly innate appreciation he has for its tools, its methods, and their own power over us. The Assassin is a most wondrous experience, a gift indeed, and an intensely beautiful gift in just about every imaginable way.