Sunday, November 8, 2015

Hou Hsiao-Hsien's new film "The Assassin" at SIFF Cinema: Nov 6 - 26

If you live on the west coast, this past year offered more than the infrequent twice-a-decade opportunity to witness the cinema of Hou Hsiao-Hsien on the big screen. The international touring retrospective of the director's entire oeuvre screened in weeks-long series at Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive and in Los Angeles at UCLA's Billy Wilder Theater. Without such prestigious academic support, The Grand Illusion Cinema and Scarecrow Video combined forces with Northwest Film Forum here in Seattle to present our own, "Also Like Life: The Films of Hou Hsiao-Hsien". As appraisals of the significance of his contribution to late 20th Century cinema, polls conducted by Film Comment and The Village Voice named Hou director of the decade, and in the overlapping 1998 worldwide critics' poll he was cited as one of three directors "most crucial to the future of cinema". Yet it's the Museum of the Moving Image, "Hou Hsiao-Hsien: In Search of Lost Time" and their symposium introduction that still stands as the most succinct tacking of the paradox of this revered, yet rarely seen director: "It’s worth questioning, however, what Hou Hsiao-Hsien's admittedly rarefied brand of art cinema means to filmmaking and film history—even history itself —if he's not being seen anywhere but on the festival circuit. Just how can we support such grand claims for his importance, when he’s preaching to a ready choir and often empty pews? The answer is easy: wedding political filmmaking with a technique at once naturalistic and highly aestheticized, Hou Hsiao-Hsien has made films that wrestle variously, and either directly or metaphorically, with personal and national histories, the struggles between Taiwan and Chinese nationalism, the encroachment of capital on an ever-evolving way of life, and, most recently, the legacy of cinema itself. 'Essential viewing' couldn’t be more aptly applied to the works of any other living director." Kent Jones' chronicling of Hou's ascendency for Film Comment, from cult phenomenon to arthouse favorite and established auteur over the decade of the late 80's to 90's. "Cinema with a Roof Over its Head: Hou Hsiao-Hsien" probes the complex factors involved in how it is that a director as critically lauded as Hou Hsiao-Hsien remains largely unseen to this day. Foremost among them is that Hou's depiction of time and space eschews being quantified through populist criteria. Even those outfitted with an understanding of the past half-Century of Asian film, where western paradigms can occasionally be applied to fill in our gaps in knowledge, in the case of Hou Hsiao-Hsien's filmmography the bridge to meaning still requires intellectual effort. A indispensable resource in bridging that expanse, the Senses of Cinema archives host a in-depth Hou Hsiao-Hsien spotlight featuring lengthy and analytic articles on the active visual minimalism of his cinema, "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Optics of Ephemerality". His homage of sorts to Yasujiro Ozu's love of "Situations Over Stories: Café Lumière & Hou Hsiao-Hsien", the nuanced depiction of different eras through "The Complexity of Minimalism: Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Three Times" and his intimate observations on the tribulations of contemporary Taiwanese women, "Hou Hsiou-Hsien’s Urban Female Youth Trilogy".

Many of these social and thematic concerns meet in the locus of what is ostensibly Hou's take on the Wuxia genre. Adapted from the Tang Dynasty short story Nie Yinniang by Pei Xing, "The Assassin" is about a princess who was taken from her family by a Taoist nun, to make way for a marriage of regional military allegiances. The nun is herself the twin sister of an Imperial princess in exile, and Yinniang is conditioned as a vigilante killer for the sole purpose of assassinating corrupt political figures within the conflicting forces of the Imperial Court and growing independence of the northern provinces. Failing an early assignment due to sentiment of not wishing to commit murder before the child of the corrupt official in question, the nun sends her home to remove the influence of her cousin, Weibo's military governor Tian Ji'an. Beloved since their shared childhood, Yinniang was once betrothed to Tian Ji'an, and it is around this assignment that the tale of Nie Yinniang's conflicts of love, retribution and allegiance pivot. Reports from this year's Cannes described a festival of established auteurs in fabulous form, mirrored in the pages of Sight & Sound by Nick James' "Cannes: Hunting Season", Isabel Stevens' "Cannes: An Affair to Remember", and for Film Comment, Kent Jones' "Wonders to Behold: A Few Films Touched with Greatness Can Make All the Difference" on the sublime perfection of Hou Hsiao-Hsien's eight-years-in-the-wait period piece. Much of the festival's coverage focusing on the Best Director-winning Wuxia drama, the atmosphere of it's sumptuous setting heightened by the cinematography of regular collaborator, Mark Lee Ping-Bin and synergy of it's central cast, Chang Chen and Shu Qi. Though a Wuxia film, it's technical rigor and opacity of storytelling mechanics are the defining characteristics of the "Killer Technique: Hou Hsiao-Hsien's return in Full Force", that set "The Assassin" apart from everything seen in the decades since the genre came into it's own in the 1960's with 'King' Hu Jinquan's groundbreaking string of films for Shaw Brothers Studio. Hou's film is more an experiment within the constraints and conventions of genre filmmaking, rather than a work of said genre. The action is brief and fleeting, often viewed from the distance of an observer. He instead chooses to make it's focal point a series of decorous, elliptical scenes that describe the hierarchy of social class and conflict. And like much of his later cinema, there's a refusal to position himself in the role of storytelling dramatizer, preferring instead a removed indication of emotion to its direct expression. Such willful abstractions eventually push the film toward an inversely heightened plane of minimalist expression. The narrative firmly rooted in the tenets of reality even as the "Blending of the Fantastical and the Realistic" qualities of its sensory presentation begin to resemble something akin to a dream or fugue state. Finding us at it's conclusion, embracing the freedom found in the irreconcilable nature of Yinniang’s mission.