The 2015 martial arts film The Assassin, by Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien, has generated debate in China over how to reach a correct understanding of its plot, background, dialogue, costumes, props, setting, and characterization—ways of reading derived from the auteur tradition. In her article “The Coordinates of Hou Hsiao-Hsien,” feminist cultural critic Dai Jinhua identifies the multiple subject-object relationships (United States-Europe-Asia and China-Taiwan) in which Hou resides, and highlights the importance of Fredric Jameson’s idea of the “national allegory”: “We must consider how the Third World has become the necessary other for European culture in its self-criticism and the plight caused by the structure of the Cold War.”(1) Hou, with his unique system of film aesthetics, has become a significant representative of “world cinema,” the global and postcolonial order of art cinema that has gradually solidified through international film festivals.
Hou’s consistently rigorous style, or, as film critic David Bordwell calls it, his “historical poetics,” has not changed in The Assassin: the refusal of a glossy studio aesthetic, the proliferation of long shots and long takes, a preference for location shooting, and a narration grounded in intricate mise-en-scène. Scholar James Tweedie calls the style “the master shot school,” of which Hou is a pioneering figure. He has also influenced a group of later international filmmakers, including Tsai Ming-liang, Chang Tso-Chi, Hong Sang-soo, Lee Kwang-mo, Hirokazu Koreeda, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, as well as Chinese directors Jia Zhangke, Wang Chao, Zhang Lü, and Liu Jiayin.(2)
Obtaining global visibility often requires Third-World filmmakers to carefully negotiate and balance the relationships between their own cultural traditions and global styles. After his “coming-of-age trilogy,” “Taiwan trilogy,” and films on contemporary urban life, Hou completed his introspection of Taiwan’s national history and modernity. Now he has become interested in a more transcendental and conceptual “Chineseness”: legendary short stories from the late Tang dynasty and martial arts film, the only unique film genre to emerge out of Chinese cinema. But The Assassin is more a deconstruction of an imaginary Chinese cultural tradition than an extraction of symbolic political meaning from ancient chuanqi texts: interpretations of power relations between central authority and local regimes, for instance, become futile given the fractured plot. This is where Hou’s martial arts film differs from the short genealogy of other post-martial arts films of national allegory (Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Zhang Yimou’s Hero, Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster, and Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin). In this regard, we can accept The Assassin’s pruned story and dialogue as an intentional arrangement, as the idea of nationhood is expanded into an ambiguous reality that awaits further reading. To corroborate this as a strategy we need only to remember the scenes of miscommunication between different Chinese dialects in A City of Sadness and Good Men, Good Women.
Hou’s martial arts film can be seen as the greatest attempt to embed tension between form and content among his works. Be it mainlanders in rural areas, individuals within historic events, contemporary Taipei, or nineteenth-century Shanghai, the focus of his work has always been the ordinary state of everyday life. In Deleuze’s terms, Hou’s master shot aesthetic corresponds to the “time-image,” while the typical narrative of a martial-arts story calls for “movement-image” in which action and situation interact with each other. The movement-image maps time indirectly through sequences of action, while the time-image represents time directly through the depiction of “pure optical and sonorous situations.”(3) Time is no longer subordinated to movement; instead, it is experienced as a change of state. In some of the most revealing moments of The Assassin, the martial-arts film’s chain of action is suspended, or even captured, by the time-image.
The first moment occurs not long after the film begins: in an indoor long shot and long take, with sounds of cicada calls and wind through branches, a lord and his young son play with a butterfly while maids stand by. After the butterfly flies away, the son starts to play ball with a maid. As the ball rolls back and forth, the camera slowly pans to the left and the son crawls off screen. Then the camera slowly pans back to the right, showing the smiling lord watching his son. Immediately following this uneventful passage, the camera tilts up and reveals the assassin, Nie Yinniang, watching everything from a roof beam. Later, she jumps down and approaches the sleeping lord and his son, waking the lord before she leaves. This master shot, depicting the duration of time, is typical for Hou. In past films, however, such shots usually consist of objective images, while here objective and subjective become indiscernible—the hidden camera echoes the hidden assassin. Real and imaginary also become indiscernible: this direct representation of time reveals the changing emotional states of Nie in an unchanging form. She presents herself in front of the lord only to radically foreclose the possibility of assassination. Unlike the movement-image, here the action cannot disclose a new situation, and the pure optical and sonorous situation abolishes the original action. It is the power of pure time that brings crisis to the action-image in martial-arts film.
There are two other moments in the film when the image becomes semi-objective. If Nie experiences the “peaks of the present” when she watches the lord and his son, then she encounters the “sheets of the past” when she sees Tian Ji’an speaking with Huji from behind a curtain (to return to a Deleuzian vocabulary). This long shot not only tells stories of the past, but also allows their connections and mutual understandings to be perceived, leading the viewer into the domain of memory. A drifting veil curtain and glittering candlelight create alternating limpid and opaque images from a semi-objective perspective, corresponding to the repetition of memory travelling between past and present. Hou deleted ten scenes explaining the romantic childhood relationship between Nie and Tian. Different sheets of the past coexist in this singular remaining scene, the only direct reference lying in Tian’s recollection of being sick at ten years old, when Nie wouldn’t leave him until he was well again.
The final moment marking Nie’s rupture with her missions appears near the end of the film: the camera is fixed on an extremely long and empty shot of a mountainous landscape before it slowly pans to the right and reveals the Princess-Nun Jiaxin on top of a small hillside. We see clouds and mist gradually gathering, and the mountain in the background starts to blur. After a while, Nie enters the frame from a path on the right side and calmly walks up to her master. She bows and apologizes for not killing Tian. By this time the mountain in the background is completely covered by heavy mist, and the shot has transformed from a deep-focus objective image to a shallow-focus, semi-objective dream landscape. Jameson points out that we never directly observe any event happening in Hou’s films, and that, in his film, “space awaits the event, just as the landscape of Taiwan awaits nationhood.”(4) Here, however, empty space cannot be defined by its later content. After characters enter the space, the movement of landscape itself is stronger than that of the figures. Landscape is no longer in unity with perception and action: it takes on autonomy and reaches an instance of pure contemplation. This is the third type of time-image, introducing an enduring interval in the moment and opening up a space for thought and the experience of time.
After these three moments, respectively, Nie has seen others, herself, and the world. The three time-images—whether alternating past and present, or the present in a duration—are circuits formed by actual images and virtual images, revealing the aprioristic invisible within visible representation. If the movement-image operates around the center of truth, then the time-image brings the very notion of truth into question, embracing a decentered and continuous change. Hou rewrites the “xia” (moral code above the law) of “wuxiapian” (martial-arts film): Nie experiences a transformation from an initial deep identification with national interest to her eventual rejection of this identity, before disappearing into the misty landscape. Deleuze says that, in the crises of the action-image, cinema has no more stories to tell: it takes itself as an object and tells only its own story. In this sense, The Assassin also tells its own story about the actual and the virtual in martial arts film: Nie’s resolution shows that her story cannot be understood as Hou’s pessimistic insistence on the lonely individual.
1. Hsien” (Hou Xiaoxian de zuobiao), The Island of Yesterday (Zuori zhidao) (Beijing: Beijing University Press, 2015).
2. James Tweedie, The Age of New Wave: Art Cinema and the Staging of Globalization (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).
3. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: the Time-image (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), p 29.
4. Fredric Jameson, Keynote speech at the conference “Double Vision: Taiwan’s New Cinema, Here and There,” Yale University, October 31, 2003.