Hou Hsiao-Hsien is one of those legendary names cinephiles have come to know as one of the world’s greatest contemporary directors, most likely without ever seeing one of his films. He is written about in such glowing terms that it is near certain that he will be remembered in the pantheon alongside Yasujirō Ozu, the great Japanese filmmaker he is so often compared with. His films are notoriously hard to find: many of his greatest works are out of print on DVD and rarely show up in repertory theatres – a few years back I tried to find his films for sale on the internet, only a DVD of Three Times (2005) was available – yet, you would think in the age of the internet and online piracy, access to Hou’s films will prove less exclusive as it once was. A quick scout on amazon reveals Café Lumière (2003), Three Times and Flight of the Red Balloon (2007) – three of his most recent films – are available for fair prices while his masterpiece The Puppetmaster (1993) remains at an outrageous £75.37; whether his back catalogue is available to torrent and download, I would not know. His latest The Assassin (2015), however, is currently on release at independent and arthouse cinemas and I think it is fair to say that it is a real treat.
On this blog, I usually try to refrain from hyperbole – so forgive me here – but I genuinely believe The Assassin is the most beautiful film I have ever seen in a cinema (and as I watched it in 4K, I cannot imagine how the print will play). Each frame is a delicate work of art, perfectly lit and composed, revealing the splendour of imperial China in the 9th century. Within the film Hou favours the wide shot he has become known for: observing from a distance while silk sheets, veils, leaves or trees often obscure the action and fragment the image, shots which mirror the disposition of Nie Yinniang, a female assassin who prefers to remain clandestine, in the hidden recesses of imperial palaces, stalking the government officials who have dishonoured her. Every pan and tilt appears precisely orchestrated, every reorganisation of the image meticulously planned out, and indeed each shot looks as though it could be painted by a 9th century artist. And there is as much concern with décor, costuming and jewellery as there is with the cinematic image.
In terms of aesthetics – and we must not forget Hou’s attention to sound, including the score and the razor sharp swordplay – the film is a staggering achievement, the product of eight years of contemplation and consideration, exertion and patience on the part of Hou’s tremendous crew. And although its pacing could be characterised as slow – or within the boundaries of the ‘slow cinema’ movement – the film mesmerises and captivates, never needing to rely on its few action sequences to speed itself up or to regain our trust and attention. I was disappointed when the film finished – perhaps a tad prematurely – saddened that there were no more astounding images to greedily consume. Yet I imagine the film’s narrative – which is fairly opaque despite its affiliation to the wuxia genre and use of revenge plotting – will be become clearer on subsequent visits to Hou’s luxuriant world, and I am sure next time I will spend less time gazing at the images in disbelief and more on deconstructing and grasping its narrative dynamics.
Like Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Italian director Paolo Sorrentino has both an eye and ear for cinematic aesthetics and this is obvious from his second English language feature Youth (2015) – his first This Must Be the Place (2011) failed to move this critic – which follows his magnificent La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty, 2013) in terms of plotting, characterisation and imagery. As Sorrentino certainly wishes to distance himself from the work of that other giant of the Italian cinema, Federico Fellini, in interviews, it is fair to say he clearly wants us to approach his films on their own terms. And indeed, Youth seems to me to be an attempt to continue the form and tone of his previous work in an English language and Swiss setting, to extend the carefully coordinated aesthetic of La Grande Bellezza to his following film. Although it is clear that Youth draws more comparisons with his previous films than the work of Fellini, I would argue that this introversion and inwardness prevents the film from achieving the success of his Oscar-winning masterpiece. Ultimately, Youth functions more as a parody than a development of Sorrentino’s aesthetic. This is not to say, that the film is not worth a watch, merely, that Sorrentino can do better.