His camera doesn’t pan, it floats. His narratives leave things out for the sake of meditating on the enigmas of life and human personalities. His triumphs, which include The Puppetmaster, Three Times and Flight Of The Red Balloon are the equal of anything by Bresson, another master of soulful austerity. Only Lav Diaz’s scenes put me in as much of a trance as Hou Hsio-Hsien’s, and while Lav owns the year with his two knockouts Storm Children: Book One and From What Is Before (both tragically screened once in this country), Hou’s new film The Assassin nears that standard. Nobody besides Diaz and Godard is making better cinema right now.
Set in 9th century China, The Assassin lingers on the aura of impending violence until that violence cuts aggressively through the air. It’s the story, or rather the languorous study, of Yinniang (Shu Qi) a girl taken from her home by a nun as a child to be trained as a killer for profit. When she’s grown, Yinniang is tasked with ending the life of Tian (Chang Chen), a young nobleman. The problem is, they were childhood sweethearts before she was taken off, as he tells his bride (Zhou Yun). Yinniang lingers around his palace like a living ghost, biding her time until she decides whether she can bring herself to dispatch him or not. A description of the story may deliver more clarity than the telling of it, as Hou films and edits with elliptical grace.
The longest scene of exposition is delivered in a wide shot with a veil separating the characters from the camera; when the veil, like the past, is lifted and we see the people clearly, bludgeoned by the dread clarity of the present tense, the moment is a visual essay on the nature of time more than it is simple background filling-in.
The action scenes don’t work like they do in movies like Hero and House Of Flying Daggers—the movie isn’t about them. When conflict escalates, the confrontations are swift, harried, even a little awkward, not unlike the human impediments slowing down the action (as it naturally happens in life) in Bresson’s Lancelot Of The Lake. Blood doesn’t spray as it would in a Miike or Lady Snowblood, yet Hou’s cutting in these sequences is breathless. The sound of Yinniang’s blade hitting its target is just as visceral as a shot of the inevitable gash would be. Hou is capable of action but doesn’t indulge it in "awesome" terms, as Yimou does. He’s an artist probing for human truths and thematically limning the indifference of nature, providing the most rapturous color photography of landscape since Assayas’ Clouds Of Sils Maria.
A final meeting between the assassin and her master is framed on a hill with the sky’s debris closing in, a grand composition reminiscent of the later sections of Godard’s Contempt. Like Godard, Hou is a poet of moments: the looks between the assassin and her love as they duel, the slow motion slitting of a throat in black and white, a group walking through marshes with their cattle under the exciting din of Lim Giong‘s music. Watching this extraordinary film you wouldn’t think Hou has taken an unfortunate 7-year absence from directing; he must have been planning every inch of The Assassin the whole time.
The acting is superbly controlled. The actors in Hou’s films always seem to collaborate with his generous camera, and like his other period efforts (The Flowers Of Shanghai, the middle portion of Three Times) the performers blend into the costumes and set design without being lost to them. Chen is especially poignant with his wide, expressive eyes and dignified facial hair. As the assassin, Qi‘s steely face never quakes into betraying the emotional divisions that are ripping her up inside. As Lady Tian, Yun plays a woman who reveals herself to have just as much mystery as her lord’s potential assassin. And as Jiaxin, Yinniang’s trainer, Fang-Yi Sheu exudes an icy sheen that lacks her protégé’s buried but existent vulnerability. Their stories are conveyed with knowledge of the wonder of faces and almost balletic movement.
What will Hou give us next? I don’t know how long we’ll have to wait for another film, but I can go a few years because his current offering is inexhaustible.