Eye of the Beholder: The Disappointments of THE ASSASSIN (Hou, 2015)

Sight & Sound magazine’s list of the top 20 films of 2015, released yesterday, is an exciting one. It confirms that 2015 was a superb year for both popular and art cinema.

But the 168 critics who voted on the list have, in my view, overestimated the virtues of one film, the list’s number one entry (and best of 2015), The Assassin by Taiwanese auteur Hou Hsaio-hsien, which I saw at the St. Louis International Film Festival over a week ago. In a word, I consider it to be a major disappointment.

Hou was once one of the great constraint-artists. He’d set out before him a finite set of stylistic ingredients, and create a dish so delicate and refined–so tantalizingly elusive–that only in conversation with friends afterwards did one begin to sense the unique artistry behind it.

Now, he tosses morsels in reflexively–and I mean that in all senses of, making use of all paradoxes inherent in, the term: both self-consciously and habitually, deliberately and unthinkingly.

The subject matter of The Assassin is something that Hou of the 1990s might have transformed. He had done just that with Flowers of Shanghai (1998), the story of a network of flowers girls in 19th century Shanghai, which he elevated to a textured, highly controlled and even mysterious play of light, color, camera movement, ellipses, and figure placement (I’ve written about many of these things here).

The visual and sonic experience of The Assassin, however, is unsettled, even bizarrely restless (I underscore, for Hou!) with no effort, it would appear, to achieve nuance. A precredit sequence is shot in black and white, with, it seems to me at least, no rhyme or reason behind it. We are given delightful, but unavailing, moves from 1.37:1 to 1.85:1 frames. There’s an extraordinary 90s-style Hou shot where Tian Ji’an and his concubine converse behind some foreground obstructions–silky drapes that dance gracefully about, here showing them, there concealing them, and four reflecting lights from sources, and on a surface, that remain unseen, deliciously mysterious, at one point concealing them as they kiss–but this is a mere one-off. Two scenes showcase two kinds of jump cut, one using elegantly sliding dolly shots with massive ellipses, and the other involving skips and shifts in camera position so imperceptible that one questions whether one had blinked one’s eyes. But this is a dead-end, too. The eye is tickled by 2000s-style Hou practical superimpositions, as I call them (he did this to great effect in 2007’s Flight of the Red Balloon), where figures are shot through mirrors or windows and a range of textures and shadows and highlights create intricate palimpsest designs. Yet more ad-ons, though. And so on.

Why?—the question becomes. To what effect is all of this?

Perhaps my expectations are the problem. Perhaps Hou has left me and my taste for subtle variation and play with setting, and movement, and time through constraint behind, and I’ve yet to catch up.

But I sense that there’s another problem, here. And it’s not the first time that I’ve sensed this in recent Hou.