By Adam Cook
For those who aren’t familiar with the Taiwanese master of cinema Hou Hsiao-hsien, now is the perfect opportunity to make up for lost time. His long-awaited film The Assassin will be playing at this year’s VIFF (and for an extended run at Vancity Theatre following the festival! TICKETS). Now 68 years of age, Hou ushered in the Taiwanense New Wave along with contemporary Edward Yang back in the 80s. His innovative and contemplative formal style have influenced filmmakers all over the world in the years since.
After a string of impersonal, but amusing, commercial pictures, Hou made A Time to Live and a Time to Die and A Summer at Grandpa’s, remarkable coming-of-age tales—each tremendously moving. Next came several memorable Historical films. Shot rigorously in long takes, movies like The Puppetmaster and The City of Sadness represented new approaches to narrative filmmaking, subverting typical storytelling techniques, immersing the viewer in extended moments of naturalistic goings-on, at once looking at history from a thoughtful distance while considering its textural and peripheral details.
The mid-90s may have been Hou’s peak in which he made Goodbye South, Goodbye (1996), an unusual and comically-tinged gangster pic, and Flowers of Shanghai (1998) his most formalist work, long takes lit by the amber hue of a lantern. After this point, Hou and his cinematographer Ping Bin Lee (the two could be argued to be among the very best director-cinematographer duos in film history) reinvented their own filmmaking style. From long static takes at a distance to impressionistic, even abstract, images, a gently roving camera painting what it sees with sensual beauty.
They’ve never failed to surprise and to try new things. 2007’s Flight of the Red Balloon was inspired by the beloved French short, The Red Balloon, and starred Juliet Binoche. We’ve had to wait eight years for a follow-up, and again Hou has ventured into new territory: a “wuxia” —meaning a martial arts genre film. But don’t expect an action film. The Assassin has a completely fresh take on the genre and merges the stylistic properties of Hou’s cinema of the 80s, 90s, and 2000s into one towering masterwork. It may be his very best film. Set during the Tang Dynasty in the 9th century, the film is elliptical, elusive—both carefully crafted yet sensous and always enveloping. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Its complex historical context and subtle narrative form make it a challenging but infinitely rewarding experience (I saw it twice in Cannes. Once to soak in its poetry and rapturous beauty, and again to better piece together its plot). Nothing less than the masterpiece arrived at by a genius filmmaker after decades of honing his craft, The Assassin may very well be the greatest of film of 2015—or maybe even of this decade at its halfway point.
P.S.: I highly recommend this new interview with Hou Hsaio-hsien, conducted by Aliza Ma for Film Comment: http://www.filmcomment.com/article/hou-hsiao-hsien-interview/
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