I WATCHED The Assassin twice: once before I met its director Hou Hsiao-Hsien, and once after. If you were to ask me what I “got” from our discussion about his film, I would say, “Nothing. Absolutely nothing.” I am not saying that I have learned nothing from Hou at all. Rather, the idea of nothingness is the very something — and probably the best thing — that I managed to take from our conversation.
The Assassin garnered Best Director from the Cannes Film Festival this year, and many critics have found the film exceptionally beautiful but have conceded that, content-wise, it seems to depict very little. In fact, Kay Hoddy from Easternkicks.com compared the film to a Ming dynasty vase: “Beautiful […] but just as empty.” In a sense, Hoddy is absolutely right. If you manage to see nothing after viewing The Assassin, you have indeed understood the something that the film seeks to convey. Getting something or getting nothing from this film depends on the way you approach its reality. For some viewers, The Assassin conveys an ideal central to Zen (or in Chinese, Chan) Buddhism: mingxin jianxing, illuminate the heart, thus allowing nature to reveal itself. For others, the film is merely Hou’s aesthetic exercise. Both opinions are honest evaluations of the film, and they are in fact one single idea seen from two different perspectives.
Hou Hsiao-Hsien had his directorial debut in 1980. Together with Edward Yang, Wan Jen, Chang Yi, and Ko I-chen, Hou was in the vanguard of the Taiwanese New Wave. In Tony Rayns’s conversation with Hou at the British Film Institute, in which I served as Hou’s interpreter, Hou confessed that when he first made films, he regarded cinema as a form of mass entertainment and an instrument for making money. When he was filming The Sandwich Man (Erzi de dawan’ou, 1983), he visited Penghu, an archipelago in the Taiwan Strait. One day, he hopped onto a bus with no idea where it would take him, and when he got off, he saw a sign with the name of the place “Fengkuei.” He saw a field of wild reeds under the setting sun, and at that moment, he realized his responsibility as a filmmaker: to use the camera and sound recorder to captivate “reality” in all its faithfulness. He soon made The Boys from Fengkuei (Fenggui lai de ren, 1983), which sought to capture precisely the impression and memory of that day. From that point on, Hou has been known among international film critics for his realistic style.
In Europe and North America, cinematic realism is usually understood in terms of French film theorist André Bazin’s notion of cinematic reality. According to Bazin, the cinematic image is a trace of reality, inscribed onto filmstrip, as the camera registers the light reflected from our physical space. Realism, in these terms, is defined as a style in which a director uses camerawork and editing to preserve such a trace without unnecessary interruption. Hou’s cinematic style resonates with Bazin’s idea of cinematic realism, which favors the use of the long shot and long take to preserve uninterrupted reality. In most of his films, Hou uses these techniques to observe the overall environment of a location. Such an environment is not limited by the camera’s frame; rather, Hou’s actors often move on and off screen, allowing viewers to become aware of the fact that the camera — and by extension, the viewers — are part of this environment. For Hou, the use of the long shot enables his actors to spend time finding themselves through multiple takes. If he dislikes one take, he shoots another scene during the rest of the day, returning to the set on the next day to do a retake of the first scene. He told me that he rarely offers his actors new ideas during a retake. Rather, he relies on them to take the initiative to reevaluate their own performances. Without the disturbance of multiple camera setups, his actors gradually feel comfortable to be themselves and thus to let their characters be.
But Hou’s understanding of realism is not limited to a Bazinian framework. Historically, many Chinese filmmakers and critics, including Liu Na’ou (1905–’40), Fei Mu (1906–’51), and Lam Nin-tung (1944–’90), regard the technique of “one-scene, one-take” as “describing reality” (xieshi) and the result one gets from this technique as “ideation” (xieyi). The concept of ideation refers to a process by which a painter sketches an abstract impression of an environment. The abstracted sketch allows a concrete sensation or idea to manifest itself in the mind of its beholder. Nevertheless, as Fei Mu points out, the photographic image is always made up of concrete reality. A filmmaker can never sketch an abstract impression; rather, he or she must observe and record an environment in the most concrete, simple, and flavorless (pingdan) manner, so that any dramatic action is immersed into the ordinariness of its environment. The audience’s attention is therefore drawn from the dramatic action to an abstract mental state called an “ideational environment” (yijing), which cannot be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, touched, or even thought of. In this sense, it can be regarded as nothingness.
Yet such nothingness emerges as something when the viewer comes face-to-face with the image, as an ideational environment is thought to be part of the viewer’s own consciousness projected on the image. For Liu Na’ou, one does not watch a film but observes it, allowing the film to reflect a part of one’s self like a mirror. This process, for Liu, is called observation-reflection (guanzhao). Therefore, in The Assassin, whether you manage to see something or nothing depends on how you perceive yourself in relation to the overall environment of the film.
The Assassin is an adaptation of the Tang dynasty novel Nie Yinniang by Pei Xing, one of the earliest Chinese literary works that features a female assassin — a staple in Chinese martial arts cinema between the 1920s and the 1960s. The film is set during the Tang dynasty (618–907), after a seven-year rebellion led by General An Lushan and his followers (755–’63). In order to protect the emperor’s territories, the Tang court set up a number of buffer towns, which gradually evolved into semiautonomous states. In the film, the warlord of the buffer town Weibo, Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen), becomes powerful enough to threaten the emperor’s authority. The film’s protagonist, Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), grew up in Weibo and was raised by a Taoist nun (Sheu Fang-yi ) who trained her to be an assassin. After 13 years, the nun sends Yinniang home in order to kill Ji’an. More importantly, the nun wants to use this opportunity to teach Yinniang to let go of her affection, mercy, and desire (qing), as it turns out that Ji’an is Yinniang’s cousin, who was once betrothed to Yinniang by his mother when both of them were children.
To kill or not to kill: that is the narrative’s tension. Killing Ji’an would rectify the political imbalance between Tang and Weibo, or in Confucian terms, rectify the law (zhengfa) in order to restore the emperor’s authority. Not killing Ji’an, however, would satisfy an equally important Confucian concept, so often in conflict with the law: being benevolent or human (chengren). These contesting concepts are conveyed by a stark stylistic contrast between the film’s first two sequences.
In the opening sequence, the nun orders Yinniang to assassinate a corrupt official with the ease and determination of a bird of prey. In a medium long shot in shallow focus, we see Yinniang in the woods, moving slowly and patiently among the trees while observing the official, who is riding on his horse and commanding his troop. This shot alternates twice with another medium long shot in shallow focus, in which we see the corrupt official and his troop. After that, we see Yinniang running away from the camera in order to dash out of the woods. The film then swiftly cuts to three close-ups, which allow us to see in slow motion Yinniang’s act of killing with precision, determination, and cruelty. Then, in another close-up, the camera follows the official, who falls off his horse. The film quickly cuts away from the scene and shows us a long shot of treetops wavering in the wind. The camerawork and editing of the entire sequence is clean, swift, economical, and stimulating. This is also one of the few sequences in which the camera sees an event from Yinniang’s point of view.
In the second sequence, we first observe in a long shot another corrupt official and his wife playing ball with their toddler. After a few minutes, which enables us to stay with the family in its quotidian state, the film cuts to a low-angle shot of the roof, and we realize that Yinniang has been hiding there and watching the family. Then, the film cuts to a long shot with a temporal ellipsis, in which the family has already fallen asleep. Yinniang jumps down from the roof in order to assassinate the official, though at the last moment she decides not to kill because of the young child. By observing the ordinariness of life without any dramatic intervention, the film image draws the viewer’s attention away from the dramatic action, to an ideational environment where absence is made present — where the abstract idea and sensation of being benevolent or being human is concretely manifested.
From this scene on, the camera stays in this observational position. At first glance, this position seems to be an objective one, but it allows viewers to observe — and to gradually immerse themselves into — an overall environment from their own subjective perspectives. For example, when Ji’an visits his mistress Huji (Hsieh Hsin-Ying), the camera observes from behind a silk curtain that wavers in and out of the frame as the wind blows. The camera’s view is further distorted as the light from the candles is reflected by the lens. In this long take from behind the curtain, Ji’an explains to Huji his past relationship with Yinniang, and his realization that Yinniang intends to assassinate him. By the end of the scene, the film cuts to a long shot of the room from another angle, thus revealing to us that Yinniang, like the camera, has been watching the scene from behind another curtain. This scene is not only beautiful, but also serves as a reminder that the camera and the viewer are part and parcel of the general environment that we observe, and from which we see our own reflection.
In Zen Buddhism, the act of observation-reflection enables the observer-reflector to illuminate his or her heart, thus allowing nature to reveal itself. The observer-reflector must let go of all forms of relationships (yuan) in this pursuit. The narrative trajectory of The Assassin can be understood as a process by which Yinniang illuminates her heart. Ji’an’s mother, Princess Jiacheng (also played by Sheu Fang-yi), is the one who betroths Yinniang to Ji’an. Thirteen years earlier, she was sent by the emperor to Weibo in order to appease the warlord (Ji’an’s father) by marriage. In flashback, Jiacheng tells Yinniang the story of “A Blue Bird Dancing in Front of a Mirror,” in which a blue bird is caged by a king — a parable of her own entrapment. The bird refuses to sing for three years, when one day the king offers her a mirror and asks her to dance. Upon seeing her own image, she lets out one last cry and dies. The reflection that the blue bird sees is her incarcerated self, and she dies in her state of imprisonment.
Jiacheng’s incarcerated self is in fact inherited by Yinniang through a token symbolizing desolation and affection. Before Jiacheng dies, she gives two identical pieces of jade (jue) to Ji’an and Yinniang respectively. They signify her determination to break all ties (jue) with the Tang court (desolation), and they also serve as tokens of Jiacheng and Yinniang’s relationship (affection). When Yinniang first approaches Ji’an, she sends her piece of jade to Ji’an’s wife, thus indicating that she is letting go not only of their relationship, but also of the desolation of her mother. Later on, Yinniang’s father, Nie Feng (Ni Dahong), is sent into exile by Ji’an. Yinniang manages to save her father, and instead of avenging him, she decides not to kill Ji’an. In fact, she even saves the life of Ji’an’s mistress because she is pregnant — a decision of benevolence, and one that suggests that Yinniang is letting go of all relationships, desolate and romantic, in her role of observer-reflector.
In the end, Yinniang decides to leave Weibo with a young mirror polisher (Satoshi Tsumabuki), but her decision is not romantic so much as it is part of the process of illuminating and liberating her heart. We see the mirror polisher for the first time after Yinniang’s father is attacked by Ji’an’s assassins. Yinniang brings her father to a hut in the country. The film cuts to a long shot of the mirror polisher demonstrating his work to a group of children. After he removes the dirt from the surface of a mirror, the children see their reflection. Contrary to the blue bird, which lets out her last cry upon seeing her state of incarceration, the children see in the mirror nature that illuminates from within themselves. In this sense, Yinniang and the mirror polisher are not forming a romantic relationship; rather, they are letting go of all relationships, setting themselves free from human troubles and sufferings.
In the final long shot of the film, we see Yinniang, the mirror polisher, and an old man walking down a path in the middle of a field. They gradually disappear into a sea of wild reeds. The shot continues for another minute before the credits roll on top of the image. The characters and their dramatic events have disappeared, and all that remain are the camera and the viewer. The lingering image serves as a mirror that enables us to reserve not only the concrete reality that the camera observes, but also our own reflections.
What we manage to see in The Assassin is nothing more or less than what we allow ourselves to see in our selves. The Assassin is indeed like a Ming vase, beautiful — and — empty. Those who love this film can see only the vase, and those who dislike this film can see only the emptiness inside it. But without the vase, we cannot manage to see its emptiness, and there is, in fact, no emptiness unless there is a vase that demarcates its boundaries. It is therefore by means of the vase that nothing is turned into something, and that something is, after all, nothing.
Victor Fan is Lecturer at Film Studies, King’s College London and Film Consultant of the Chinese Visual Festival. His book Cinema Approaching Reality: Locating Chinese Film Theory was published in 2015 by the University of Minnesota Press.