With today’s social climate, any form of media has immense pressure to be political. And it is irrelevant whether the artwork wants to be political or not, for everything is immediately put under the scanner. Cinema hasn’t escaped this phenomenon, in fact it is one of the prominent subjects of it, and the whole situation led me to begin an exploration if we can separate political elements from a film’s formal elements. However, there are some filmmakers which seem to take on both these features of film in a single work and with audacious experimentation. Hou Hsiao-Hsien is one of those and his magnum opus The Assassin is no exception.
While Hou keeps the narrative rather straightforward, although not without letting the story bring its own complexity with a plethora of characters that require multiple viewings; he fills up the ambiance around the spectacle quite frequently with political commentary. Ever so often, his choices can be inaccessible, and so, it is an immense joy when you can put a finger on what he probably meant to indicate with a scene. For me, it was identifying the correlation of a few dialogues to Sartre’s Childhood of a Leader, when the child of an emperor almost demands the butterfly which had flown away, before being distracted by something else. Of course, sometimes there are direct references to establishments which become incomprehensible or we are unable to understand them to a greater extent, simply because we don’t know the history of China and Taiwan. Yet, I have never felt that those come in the way of core narrative. Hou walks that tightrope with an impeccable confidence.
The Assassin is a perfect post-wuxia. Attaching ‘post-‘ to a genre piece, to me, feels appropriate when that piece utilizes tropes of a genre but dares to venture more into the profound themes beyond the genre’s narrative framework. For ex., Hell or High Water is a post-western as the themes of guilt and existential crisis are prominent parts of it. The Assassin thrives on the conflict that Yinniang faces and its unexpected, although deeply satisfying, conclusion. All the while, the themes ranging from morality, responsibility, conflict between different political establishments and conflict between an establishment & an individual, to name a few.
During all of this, Hou doesn’t shy away from his formal experiments. The film is shot in 4:3 aspect ratio, except for one scene, which might as well be a choice just to keep theaters from putting curtain over the sides (I personally hate it when they adjust the screen per aspect ratio of the film). Each frame of the film is masterfully lush & breath-taking, and each shot feels strangely hypnotic thanks to the long takes & the often accompanied big drum playing at a distance. A stroke of pure formal genius! That is also where Hou strikes you with a shock like nothing else, a total editing masterclass, producing the coolest action sequences than most superhero films today, which are over before you even realize what happened. Just like the ephemeral details of your own experience of violence, the memory of which is strong but fragmented. In this day & age, comparing The Assassin to a superhero film feels inevitable, not just because of its solid realization but also because it goes to places where, ironically, this highest-grossing genre doesn’t dare to go.