A Book Review Essay by Tony Williams.
In Mostly About Lindsay Anderson, his long-time friend Gavin Lambert speaks about the in-flight movie seen by his colleague that drove him to despair. Enduring Suspect (1987), Anderson experienced feelings similar to anyone watching The Jagged Edge (1984), the kind of bland made-for-TV movie that deliberately ignored challenging aspects of real cinema, whether poetic or political. (1) It is undeniable that things have got much worse since Anderson’s lifetime when Western cinema did at least allow some space for films that combined the artistic and commercial, possible more in the heyday of John Ford than it is today. Yet, though still marginalized but championed by critics such as David Bordwell and others, alternative challenging aspects of cinema at its highest still exist. Hou Hsiao-Hsien is one of those directors working today who wields that artistic banner.
Film can be as challenging as the other arts despite its commercial form of distribution but few audiences are prepared to confront this challenge and pursue its implications further. Naturally, in looking at the Taiwan New Wave and others indebted to its aftermath, a feeling of watching a unique work that is not pretentious but highly important, despite its deliberate rejection of mainstream techniques, lingers in the mind of any spectator who does not resort to the abrupt dismissal typified by Paul Schrader. (2) Certain films demand effort on the part of any spectator seeking “the pleasure of the text” and these necessitate the similar type of response of any reader attempting to grapple with the late novels of Henry James or the much deeper artistic and political dimensions of the Manchester UK Savoy Press creation of Lord Horror, something that sent one of its authors to jail several decades ago. Both examples demand a lot of effort to understand what actually is going on in the text, and those who lack the background information now have reliable interpretative material to consult if they want to go beyond initial reactions of approval or disapproval on first encountering the text. (3) I do not wish to compare the different achievements of The Assassin and Lord Horror but only to point out that both involve necessary hard work of trying to understand their serious implications (unless one wants to remain in the world of “mindless entertainment” that corporations so “devoutly wish” today for their uncomprehending victims).
If Hong Kong University Press’s Screening Communities supplies important archive information necessary to understanding much better the complexities of its subject matter, so too does this exemplary collection of essays by Chinese and Western scholars edited by Peng Hsiao-yen from the same press (2019). In addition to a list of illustrations, character chart (necessary in negotiating and understanding the many and varied complex relationships existing between characters in this film), historical chronicle of major events before the narrative begins, map of the situation affecting the Tang Dynasty (618-907) following the 763 An Lushan Rebellion, four sections comprising twelve meticulously researched and written articles follow the editor’s introduction, these key sections include two essays on the complex notion of the auteur issue affecting the director; another two on aspects of literary and film adaptation in addition to editing, four on the highly important and innovative employment of acoustic and visual conceptions, and an interrogation of how Hou employs traditional understandings of martial arts, aesthetics, ethics, and religious elements in the film within his own unique forms of interpretation. The book concludes with original source material concerning the heroine, filmography, and works cited.
The Assassin is a very challenging accomplishment making the Western viewer feel an overwhelming sense of estrangement and confusion (I’m naturally speaking of myself here) but it is also, despite its foreign context, not something that is “pseud’s corner” but a film demanding intense work of interpretation, something very difficult to do outside its relevant cultural context. The value of this collection is that it provides readers with relevant material which one may use to understand the film much better as well as move into higher realms of appreciation and unique interpretation that this director certainly expects his viewers to do, no matter to which culture they may belong.
Despite its award-winning status, the film has elicited polarized receptions ranging from appreciation of its aesthetic beauty to those of audiences familiar with the wuxia genre and swordswomen who see a film “that seems to be in every way “contrary to its genre expectations” (2). In her introduction, editor Peng foreshadows ways in which her contributors will attempt to answer such questions, noting that for the director “it is human nature rather than the spectacular fight sequences that interests him. It is as much a film of human drama as a period film” (7). Thus any examination of the film’s complexities must move beyond film studies per se to encompass a more interdisciplinary approach to encompass “history, literature, the adaptation processes, appropriation of Chinese visual aesthetics (landscape paintings and ladies’ portraits), music, philosophy and religion” (11) in a cross disciplinary manner.
In a 2015 interview translated by Christopher Lupke, scenarist Xie Haimeng speaks of the director’s iceberg theory of authorship, where “What is within the frame and what is outside the frame are both part of reality” (29). Hou regards his film as belonging to that past tradition of international cinema of “pure image” that he sees himself belonging to, “unlike the brainless films that are made today” (38). He certainly recognizes a past tradition but like all creative directors reworks it in his own unique way rather than engage in mindless repetition. Editor Peng next explores relevant issues of auteurism but plausibly argues The Assassin blurs supposedly rigid boundaries between art house and commercial films (41), noting its complex, but understandable, structure, making “the audience feel empathy for the characters by showing their suppressed passions” (49). It is familiar narrative storytelling but through the technique of pure image, a film that needs to be studied but can be instantly enjoyable as long as audiences choose to employ their untapped sources of visual capability (55). Following two detailed studies of previous adaptations dealing with the title character Nie Yinniang, Deborah Sang Tze-lan explores the transmedia aspects of adaption, seeing the film as a “narrative around the resocialization of an outcast, which fundamentally subverts the story of transcendence in the film’s ninth-century source tale” (73).
From this we can see certain responses to some familiar traditional martial arts tropes that Western critics like myself are familiar with. Unlike the tragically deterministic goal-directed trajectory of Wang Yu in Zhang Che’s The Assassin (1967), Nie Yinniang deliberately chooses humanity over professional duty to make her seemingly impenetrable character open to development rather than her male predecessor’s eventual deadly entrapment. She will survive after making an unprofessional choice, according to the wuxia tradition, meeting up with the mirror polisher who helped save her father’s life and tends her wounds, as she journeys towards modern day Korea, “which takes her away from the contentious politics in Weibo but presumably allows her to develop a new central human relationship – a committed friendship, if not romantic union” (76-77). She also avoids the fate of Zheng Pei-pei at the end of Zhang Che’s Golden Swallow (1968) who chooses to mourn a deceased, dangerously disturbed hero (also played by Wang Yu) at the end. Although these references are not noted in the essay, they certainly would have been in the minds of director, scenarist, and aware audiences who would comprehend Tse-lan’s concluding words that the “minimalistic, anti-generic, and evocative movement of The Assassin liberates viewers from predictable narrative development, forcing them to come face to face with the limits of the film medium as well as the limits of their own imagination and sensibilities. This is why The Assassin is a timely intervention and pure cinema par excellence” (86).
Nobody seems to have noticed this, but is it not significant that veteran actor Shi-Chun, most notably associated with the work of King Hu, appears in a small cameo in the film, greeting the return of the heroine at the end and recognizing her as someone who has kept her word? The ending is less tragic than most films in this genre thus emphasizing how Hou has chosen to rework this tradition in his own way as King Hu reworked and stylized the wuxia genre in his day. Hou’s fellow Taiwan New Wave director Tsai Ming-liang also used the actor in a cameo in his Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003), as well as Chun’s fellow co-actor from the original film Tien Miao. Editor Peng’s essay on visual design involving portraits and female Tang Dynasty fashion, as well as music, is another sterling contribution to this collection. Avoiding the traditional Chinese opera music, the soundtrack composer employed “elements similar to Middle Eastern music to represent the mixed Han and Songlian culture of the Tang” (95), as well as using a piece by French musician Pierrick Tanguy, director of the traditional Breton music band Men Ha Tan, that utilizes traditional Breton instruments – such as a bagpipe dating back to ancient Egyptian times and introduced into Europe by the Greeks and Romans – as well as traditional African percussion instruments (97). This choice not only avoids generic “Chinese music” but recreates the Tang dynasty’s Han and Sogdian culture to represent a world that never was really static but subject to change. This would ideally complement Hou’s distinctive reworking of traditional narrative patterns in image and sound.
Listening, as well as viewing, forms an integral part of the film’s construction, as the essay “The Three Ears of The Assassin” reveal, in which background sound and music all play crucial roles in revealing that the heroine’s sensitivity to sound, “leads not only to her ethical responsibility not to kill Tian Ji’an but also to the audience’s ethical responsibility to learn to listen to zones of indiscernibility and the indistinct virtual sound of cinema” (113). As Nicole Huang points out in her essay “Veiled Listening,” the title character is an eavesdropper, far removed from her active predecessors, one engaged in hearing behind veiled backgrounds, weighing up what she sees and hears in a film that is meta-cinematic, inviting “its viewers to sharpen their sense of hearing as a path to thinking about close listening as a critical and productive way to enter a cinematic world set in a distant time and space” (132).
It is also a difficult question as to whether The Assassin can be regarded as being a national allegory. Both James A. Steintrager and Jen-Hao Walter Hsu discuss these issues in separate essays, the former seeing the audio-visual elements especially at the end suggesting constraint and lack of agency, while the latter relates this recent work to the “critical lyricism” existing in Hou’s earlier Taiwan films (150-160) regarding the conclusion as representing an “alternative humanism as an antidote beyond the scope of Western modernity” (160), where Yinniang and her newfound family embark “on their final spiritual homecoming journey into the infinity of Heaven and Earth” (160). Hsiu-Chuang Deppman further explores the film’s combination of ethics and aesthetics, noting the director’s comment on the vision of a responsible citizen “suggests that The Assassin is about a woman’s quest for the moral courage to challenge authority” (161) in which the type of self-restraint found in Laozi, Confucius, and Levinas suggests “a step forward in moving forward to manage human conflicts” (162). Thus the film is unlike any other martial arts film made before, since it explores the intense moral “philosophical clash and compromise of Daoism and Confucianism…in finding the best cultural practice of being human” (164). The ambiance of restraint becomes a key concept in the film, forcing “the viewer to bridge the visual and narrative gap through interpretation” (172). For Deppman, this also explains why so many find his films difficult “because his deliberate vagueness creates an open-ended nonnarrative” (172). In approaching a new genre for him and exploring its familiar premises, “Hou is fearless in testing the limits of martial arts films not by being more spectacular but by being realistic about the predicament of negotiating among different ways of thinking, living, and experiencing life as art” (176).
The collection ends with Victor Fan’s exploration of how the film uses Buddhism according to a complex use of narrative devices. Like other essays in this collection, it is informative and adds much to viewer appreciation when one returns again and again to one of the most artistic and challenging films of the decade. Thankfully, significant works still exist and one is grateful for guidance when it is most needed, especially for Western viewers unfamiliar with cultural elements used in the work. Yet, as the Buddha once stated, the disciple has to work out his/her own salvation by gaining enlightenment. This book, along with the film, is an important tool in this goal in not only working towards elucidation of a seemingly difficult text but also encouraging viewers to engage in critical spectatorship to transcend the chains of illusion generated by most areas of cinema in our contemporary world and opposing (what Hou aptly terms) “the brainless films that are made today” (38).
- Gavin Lambert, Mainly about Lindsay Anderson, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000, 304-5. I admit I’ve only seen parts of Suspect but have viewed The Jagged Edge theatrically, the tedium of which was broken by the distraught voice of a female spectator agonized at the fact that Jeff Bridges played an unusual role. Her cries echoing throughout the auditorium, “Oh no, Jeff. No!” resound with me today despite my fortunate amnesia concerning the rest of the film!
- See https://www.indiewire.com/2016/01/paul-schrader-says-hou-hsiao-hsiens-the-assassin-is-a-compendium-of-art-house-cliches-86085/. For the usual Western, but more appreciative, response see the review by Cleaver Patterson, http://filmint.nu/?p=17497.
- For Lord Horror and the graphic novels that followed see https://supervert.com/essays/horror-panegyric/interview-with-john-coulthart; https://www.spectator.co.uk/2013/03/murder-rape-and-racism/https://www.spectator.co.uk/2013/03/murder-rape-and-racism/; http://www.johncoulthart.com/retinacula/reverbstorm.html; https://supervert.com/essays/horror-panegyric/.
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film studies in (the unenlightened) Department of English in the (illusions-dominated) Southern Illinois University of Carbondale, where the permissible brainless and narcotic devices of social media dominate most students. He was a frequent contributor to Asian Cinema, contributor to Directory of World Cinema: China. Vols. I & 2 (2012, 2015), author of John Woo’s A Bullet in the Head (2009), editor of Postcolonialism, Diaspora, and Alternative Histories: The Cinema of Evans Chan (2015), co-editor with Esther C.M. Yau of Hong Kong Neo-Noir (2017).