The Assassin ★★★★

I... think I really liked this? It wasn't easy, sat in a packed cinema with the heating whacked up to coma-inducing levels, being unable to follow what little comprehensible plot there was because of some guy's enormous fat head blocking half the subtitles in front of me. Normally slow films benefit from being seen on a big screen - in the dark, in silence, no distractions - but this was a real pain.

Hsaio-Hsien's treatment of narrative here reminded me of three of my all-time favourite directors. Like Altman, he takes a familiar story so the audience don't have to think too hard about it and he can divert their attention to atmosphere, character, mood and place instead. Just as a Chinese audience might be puzzled by the plot of The Long Goodbye, though, Western audience members (including this one) may well be lost with The Assassin. It's based on Nie Yinniang by Pei Xing, a legendary story in China and its territories, but few outside that country will have the casual familiarity with it necessary to follow Hsaio-Hsien's narrative strategies.

Like the Godard of Contempt or Pierrot le Fou, Hsaio-Hsien gets rid of narrative in large blocks of dialogue, leaving the rest of the film to experiment with. I think he's successful in this - certainly the mood-driven segments of it work, though it was hard to tell if the dialogue scenes did because of that one guy and his massive head. Seriously, you should have seen him. It's not as if he was fat or anything, he just had this enormous head, like Charlie Brown.

What I can say is that Hsaio-Hsien has a sense of the architecture of a film, of the narrative film as a kind of symphony, that recalls Orson Welles. Like Welles, he knows the audience needs a loud noise from time to time to keep them awake, and he finds a way of integrating everything from wire-assisted swordfights to boisterous musical performances into his film without wrecking its dreamy, blissful pace and tone.

I'm not an expert on wuxia by a long way, but I'd be surprised if there was another one like this. Even the ones by Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou seem pulpy and crude compared to this surpassingly subtle and haunting film. One shot seems to contain the core of Hsaio-Hsien's method, as Yinniang (Shu Qi, who still looks like the most fabulous rock star even in 8th century China) is told a story that reduces her to tears. A more conventional film might punctuate the story with close-ups of her beginning to cry, but as the story starts Mark Lee Ping Bin's wonderful drifting camera sidles off to watch the storyteller, and doesn't come back until Yinniang is crying. And not even visibly - she's covering her face with a handkerchief. The story is unfolding, and people are being hurt and crying, but it's all happening away from our eyes. We can only realise things in retrospect, the real action is being concealed... that bloke's massive head.

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