Peng Hsiao-yen (editor), The Assassin: Hou Hsiao-hsien’s World of Tang China, Hong Kong University Press, 2019. 252 ppgs.
Published in 2019 by the Hong Kong University Press, The Assassin: Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s World of Tang China is an anthology of eleven essays examining the Taiwanese director’s polarising 2015 film—a surprise foray into the wuxia 武俠 (martial arts) genre—about a solitary killer who in the end chooses not to kill. The book’s editor Peng Hsiao-yen prefaces the essays with Yang Zhao’s interview with Hou and Xie Haimeng, one of his co-screenwriters, given at the time of the film’s release, and closes it with a translation of the Tang Dynasty tale that inspired The Assassin. In between, individual contributions explore various formal aspects of the film—establishing its debt to classical landscape painting, for instance—before a final section which assesses its ethical concerns from Buddhist, Confucianist and Daoist perspectives. A prismatic evaluation of a film that defies easy understanding, the book demonstrates the value of an interdisciplinary approach to a complex work of art.
The Assassin might be glibly described as an action movie with almost no action. This studied addition to the venerable swordplay genre devotes less than five minutes of its 105-minute running time to actual combat scenes; the handful of deaths that do occur are implied rather than shown, through elliptic editing and sound effects; and the dramatic climax consists of the title character (played by Shu Qi) renouncing the way of the sword. In traditional wuxia, bodies and sharp objects fly in so many directions that it can sometimes seem as if the characters are uncovering new dimensions in physical space. In contrast, Hou’s film is marked by a kind of placid watchfulness, achieved through his signature long takes and stationary camera, which lingers on landscapes in which human beings barely register, if they appear at all.
But if Hou’s brusque handling of beloved genre tropes seems contrarian, it pales in comparison with the downright wilfulness, even perversity, of his approach to narrative. In The Assassin, virtually no plot points arrive via conventional storytelling or exposition. Instead, viewers are left to thread their way through a maze of indirect allusions, pregnant silences, and flashbacks that at first seem like gnomic riddles. (My own initial encounter with the film was largely one of slack-jawed incomprehension. Only the quietly moving final scene, in which Shu’s solitary outcast rejoins a human community, left enough of an impression to convince me that there was something here worth digging into further. That was several viewings ago.)
The first revelation in the Hong Kong University Press’s new anthology is that Hou and his collaborators initially set out to make a film that, from the evidence here, might have satisfied many more expectations for a historical swordplay saga helmed by a name director—something along the lines of Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002) or Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), to name the two most obvious antecedents. Prodigious amounts of research went into ensuring that the Tang Dynasty milieu would be persuasively captured onscreen, with meticulous preparation lavished on everything from costuming and décor to the precise sound of court speech. Hou and his two co-screenwriters, Zhu Tianwen and Xie Haimeng, spent years developing a screenplay that filled in the story’s historical and political context and gave detailed backstories for the principals—to the extent that Xie even had enough material for a novel, never published, based on the script.
As cineastes around the world know, the more conventional wuxia isn’t the movie that ended up onscreen. From a shoot that went on for eighteen months Hou ended up sculpting a terse mood piece that dispenses with narrative bric-a-brac in order to privilege what he calls here, in the opening interview, “the pure image, the charisma of the image”. Zhu Tianwen publicly vented her frustration with the finished product, but in the same interview Hou’s other collaborator, Xie, draws a helpful parallel with the films of Robert Bresson. It’s a connection I would have liked to see explored in further detail; the obvious comparison is with Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac (1974), another auteurist evocation of a premodern mythos that turns out to be anything but a storybook pageant. (Talk about a dream double-bill.)
The critical rap on The Assassin is that it amounts to little more than a beautiful objet, an aesthetic bauble. The essays in this book refute that charge from multiple angles, beginning with Peng’s “To Kill or Not to Kill: Auteurism and Storytelling,” which scrupulously considers the ways in which Hou’s “pure image” aesthetic raises patient viewers to a kind of heightened mindfulness appropriate to a story of moral transformation. Nicole Huang discusses the ways in which the movie expands the definition of mise-en-scène to include aural environments, integral to a plot that hinges on scenes of eavesdropping. Taken cumulatively, the essays convey an impressively wide range of information, from human interest stories (apparently Shu Qi’s fear of heights led to substantial rewrites during production) to more esoteric material, such as a summary of how critics in 1930s Shanghai elaborated a film theory derived from Buddhist precepts.
For me, the most informative passages in this book explore how much of what we see and hear onscreen reflects a historically cosmopolitan, mixed culture. The story takes place in a restive “buffer province” whose leader chafes under the yoke of the central (i.e. Han) government, and the world depicted is a hybrid of Han and Sogdian (Central Asian) elements. The music accompanying a lively dance scene was composed and performed by the Aashti Silk Road Ensemble, whose repertoire extends from the Balkans to Mongolia; the stirring, percussion-heavy martial track that concludes the film (and which always, ineffably, contributes to my feeling of having been through a real experience with its heroine) features traditional Breton and African instruments and was recorded in Dakar in 2000. (Hou and his team emphatically wanted to avoid anything that sounded like traditional “Chinese music”.) For Peng, these heterogeneous qualities illustrate how “Chineseness has always been marked by its historical openness to non-Chinese elements”, and subtly suggest that “it would be a myth to imagine that a ‘pure’ Chineseness has ever existed”.
At times, reading these essays, you may wish you had a wuxia heroine’s sword on hand to help slash through the occasional thicket of dense academic prose. There are a handful of typos, and it’s disappointing that no one at a university press flagged the identification (twice) of The Iliad as the Greek epic in which Penelope sits at home waiting for her husband Odysseus.
More substantively, I wish there had been room, in a book that finds space for four analyses of the film’s soundtrack and sound design, for an assessment of the actors and what they do in The Assassin. Shu’s character is a hero of deportment: burdened with a sorrow almost too profound for words yet capable of exemplary self-restraint, she wins us over through largely non-verbal means, and while Hou’s editing and blocking are undoubtedly part of the overall achievement, there’s a measure of actorly craft that should be acknowledged here as well. This is a film, after all, whose star gets exactly nine lines of dialogue. Yet I accept entirely her character’s steely self-discipline and her moral awakening—whereas in an earlier Hou film, 2001’s Millennium Mambo, the inner life of Shu’s character (a wispy Taipei party girl) is something the viewer has to take on faith.
But these are quibbles that shouldn’t deter any Hou fan, or any open-minded wuxia lover, from picking up this volume. Peng has put together a comprehensive validation of what the American critic Kent Jones wrote in his 1999 Film Comment appreciation of Hou:
The fact is that no matter how deep an affinity Westerners develop for Eastern culture, the moment always arrives when the conceptually unfamiliar impedes the flow of pleasure, and the bridge to “universal meaning” must be crossed with intellectual effort.—Kent Jones, Film Comment, 1999. (Via)
This is doubly true of a film like The Assassin, which consciously draws on cultural tropes that stretch back more than a thousand years. English-speaking cinephiles are lucky to have a resource like this—in a handsome hardback volume, aptly illustrated with stills, a character chart, and a map—for a Chinese film that’s no more than six years old. I saw The Assassin again as preparation for reading this collection, and when I finished the book, armed with a fresh set of perceptions, I couldn’t wait to see it again.
How to cite: Tompkins, Jeff. “A Historically Cosmopolitan, Mixed Culture: Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s World of Tang China.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 12 Oct. 2021, chajournal.blog/2021/10/12/the-assassin/.
Jeff Tompkins is a writer and comics artist in New York City. His articles and reviews have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, The Chicago Review of Books, and Words Without Borders, among other places. He is the Online Content and Community Manager for Library of America, a non-profit publisher of classic American writing.