Hsiao-Hsien Hou’s tale of a 7th Century Chinese assassin won many fans and was in a lot of best films of the year for 2015 (being an art house release it’s only just got around to being shown here). Within the first twenty minutes, it’s easy to see why. At times this feels less like watching a movie and more like wandering around an art gallery admiring masterpieces. Each scene is painstakingly constructed, the use of colour, structure, objects and framing all give each one a painting like quality. “Chinese woman bathing” “Princess with zither” “Rural scene” – you can imagine the guidance notes next to each in the gallery. Unlike the two previous films on here (Revenant and Hateful Eight) the beauty of the cinematography here is not in capturing the landscape, but in assembling a set of miniatures. Hou is as much curator as he is director.
This approach is rewarding to behold, but not without its problems. Having so carefully crafted each scene, we need to linger on each one. This means that meaningful silences which last about 30 seconds beyond that which is entirely comfortable are the norm. The gentle pace that demands we admire every scene goddammit, sacrifices any tension. By the time the climax comes, one doesn’t really care. It also meant that it felt a lot longer than it’s 1hr 45 minutes running time. Characterisation isn’t strong either, we get lots of meaningful allegories but the various plot threads are subsumed to the overall artful.
Martin Amis (I can’t believe I’ve referenced him twice now within a few reviews) quoted Anthony Burgess, stating “Anthony Burgess said there are two kinds of writers, A-writers and B-writers. A-writers are storytellers, B-writers are users of language.” Maybe the same is true of film makers – those who are concerned with narrative (A – directors) and those who foreground the imagery (B – directors). This should be seen as a continuum, not a dichotomy. Many great film makers will blend elements of both. Hou is certainly towards the B director end of this scale. There is narrative there, but its role is always secondary.