It’s been a good while since I’ve watched a Hou Hsiao-Hsien film. My favorite of his is Goodbye, South, Goodbye, which I should watch again. But my memory of that film and others of his that I know are the same: gorgeous, slow, and at times confusing.
The Assassin was on a lot of year-end lists, and if this were prettiest films of 2015 then it’d definitely be near the top. Hou, cinematographer Ping Bin Lee, and production designer Wen-Ying Huang have created something that’s lavish and ethereal. Shots like this aren’t come by often:
The camera often shoots through things – usually thin curtains-
-and the hazy soft light accompanying the shots adds to the glowing, nearly supernatural effect. Sumptuous is definitely a word for Hou’s film. Shooting through curtains isn’t only for the look (though it largely is). It’s also appropriate thematically – this is a film about masks, hidden motivations, and voyeurism.
As the title indicates, the movie follows Yinniang (Qi Shu), a trained assassin sent by her master to murder her cousin Tian Ji’an (Chen Chang). The problem: she kinda likes Tian Ji’an.
In some ways, The Assassin is Hou’s most conventional film. Its plot is pretty easy to follow, its non-linearity is sparing, and motivations and relationships are spelled out.
Hou’s camera moves a lot, but it’s methodical. Alongside Son of Saul camera operators Zoltan Lovasi and Gyorgy Reder, the operation here is some of the best I’ve seen in awhile. Pans in frames like this –
-are really hard. Harder than they look. The extreme wide shot makes any movement noticeable. Hou has a lot of moves like this in the film. They seem pretty unmotivated – the frame just floats (often pans, actually) between characters having a conversation. With nothing “moving” the frame you can really feel any stutter…but here you don’t.
There are also a lot of straight push-ins:
These are often long moves, like the one depicted above, but they’re made to feel short, or at least hidden, because of the slow pace. That’s a trait of the entire film. I don’t think you immediately come away from The Assassin thinking, ‘man, that camera moved a lot,’ but it did. It’s the trance-inducing pace that seems to almost negate (again, ‘hide’ is a better word here) the movement.
That The Assassin is one of Hou’s clearest narratives doesn’t mean it’s all clear. For example, who is this person who keeps cropping up?
It’s not Yinniang – she fights Yinniang. I have to admit that a forum gave me an answer, but were there any context or visual clues that I missed? Maybe some that I would be culturally (or otherwise) unaware of? The best I could find when going back – NO REAL SPOILERS HERE – is a juxtaposition that kind of gives a hint:
But even that’s a stretch. Now if you break down the various factions (which again, are actually pretty simple) then maybe you can figure it out by process of elimination, but that’s also assuming that she must be someone already in the plot, not someone new. Regardless, Hou still wants you to work.
Visually, the film has a pretty, albeit traditionally used, black and white prologue-
-and a very brief moment where the frame goes from 1.37 to 1.85:
The 1.85 moment is odd. I almost missed it. As far as I could see it was only for the shot depicted above. It’s like pulling us out of the fiction and for a few seconds watching something of realism in relative peace and quiet. It’s reflective and still.
That The Assassin is conventional by Hou standards doesn’t make it bad. It’s good, in fact, but more than his other films, it’s good for imagery far beyond content.
I figured that these films might be good for me to talk about back-to-back, if for no other reason because of their disparate-yet-similar cameras.
Alejandro Inarritu’s The Revenant is a high-profile revenge film that will probably deserve a lot of awards. Leonardo DiCaprio is Hugh Glass, a fur trader left for dead by his companions, particularly John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy).
DiCaprio is good in the film – it’s probably finally Oscar time for him – but it’s Hardy that steals the show. The man is making an unbelievable career out of playing villains, but also out of playing the slow, monotone, threatening kind. He’s got some real control of his physicality, and his everyman delivery in The Revenant makes him all the more terrifying.
The camera in The Revenant is ridiculous. Even if you don’t look for blocking it’s impossible to miss in here. It’s pretty brilliant. Love his films or not, Inarritu has come into his own. It’s not that he’s created his own style or anything, but he’s definitely embraced the wide-angle close-up, constantly moving, motivated (see: the opposite of most of Hou’s) camera. It’s intense and entrancing throughout, but particularly in an opening battle scene that is so damn complicated and so fluid that it’s almost maddening.
In some ways Inarritu is a showier camera descendant of Welles who definitely embraced the ugly, bulging close-up (often of himself) and the long take.
But there are some less showy long takes in The Revenant that, while probably not as endurance-testing, are still beautiful. There’s the long take of the bear attack, done mostly with Glass in the foreground and the camera hovering near ground level. There’s a nice push in, followed by some quick pans and tilts as Glass, newly recovered, hides in a watery alcove from some Native Americans. And there’s the suspenseful long take as Glass steals a horse and rescues a woman.
None of those are as glamorous as the opening battle. These are like the motel long take in Touch of Evil versus the opening time bomb long take in the same film. The latter gets all the glory, the former might just be more accomplished.
Maybe The Revenant is a bit too long, but it’s probably Inarritu’s best film (this and Biutiful for me). It’s just got such energy and nerve and, just when you think you might be sinking into a narrative of violence, he gives you heartbreakingly pretty frames to dispel that notion.
How do you produce a film like this? How do you shoot with big stars and a large crew in such weather conditions? When it’s finally foggy (because a fog machine ain’t doing what this film needs it to do) do you just rally the entire production in 20 minutes and go grab a few shots? Is this that run and gun or can there be more of a method to this kind of magnificent madness?