© 2015 by James Clark
Hou Hsiao Hsien is hardly a well-known name apart from a smallish corner of Asia and amongst a few film enthusiasts elsewhere. But those who do know the name and the film products carrying his name revere him for maintaining bittersweet solace, on the scale of the works of Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963). I’ve noticed, in my relatively brief tenure of linking to movies, that the culture of film production and consumption heavily favors internalizing the filmed actions to sustain various predilections remarkable for their absence of anything but fixation upon a range of the tried and true stretching back to distant eons. Extremities of time, space and emotion (and concomitant technical extremities) only serve to confirm that horse and buggy ways are the way to go.
The assumption that Hou Hsiao Hsien offers in his work somewhat off-beat, eccentric stylization to speak on behalf of quiet and fragile souls runs, I fear, into the inconvenient presence of his recent vehicles, like, Goodbye South, Goodbye (1996) and Millennium Mambo (2001), showing deft and intense rejigging of the ancient Chinese coordinating perspective of Yin and Yang. The latter-mentioned film’s graphically pinpointed ebb and flow of comprehensive verve within human sensibility is right on the money as to avant-garde endeavors (including quantum physics, disowned as such, or mordantly not) trailing back to the beginning of the twentieth century. (The former-mentioned film involves a woman named Ying who evinces considerable Yang.) On this note we must remark that many filmmakers from the mid-twentieth century on were at work on such palpable and problematic matters of consciousness, though not well recognized as such. These artists well understood that cinema was a potentially dangerous weapon in the context of the general medium’s conventionality. One of the foremost early film contrarians, Jean-Pierre Melville (1917-1973), produced, in 1969, near the end of his career, a film called, Army of Shadows, dealing with political intrigue during the Nazi occupation of France but at the same time dealing with righting a much larger structure of sensibility. Hou Hsiao Hsien, being as interested in survival as in pushing the envelope, though on record as being an avid fan of Godard and Truffaut, never alludes to Melville. Those red herrings stem from typical film industry flim-flam and they are most remarkable in light of his current film, The Assassin (2015), being as rooted in that French Resistance saga as in the Tang Dynasty of its narrative setting. The film’s protagonist, a lethal nemesis swayed by a princess-nun (that is, a charismatic ascetic on the order of an ISIS official), is named Yinniang. Her work with Yin and Yang is far more compelling than her day job. (more…)