Much of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin focuses on the act of seeing – both in how Yinniang sees the world around her as she weighs whether or not to kill her cousin, Tian Ji’An, and in how we, as the audience, see her character’s struggles through symbol and image. In this vein, it may be valuable to look at some other East Asian works and see how their cinematography reflects this same theme of seeing.
Wong Kar-Wai, a Hong Kong director and member of the Hong Kong New Wave, produced one of my favorite films, In the Mood for Love. The film centers on Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan, two neighbors living in Hong Kong in the 1950’s. Mr. Chow’s wife is having an affair with Mrs. Chan’s husband, and we follow Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan as they come to this realization and slowly develop a platonic romance of their own. Against the backdrop of a very socially conservative Hong Kong that frowned upon even platonic relationships between man and woman, we see the duo making a habit of meeting secretly in a rented apartment to simply talk and enjoy each others’ company.
The following two clips are remarkable examples of how Wong Kar-Wai and his cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, develop the isolation, loneliness, paranoia and lack of privacy that each character feels through their image composition.
One of the most interesting aspects of the cinematography in both clips is how constrained the characters are in the frame. More often than not, they are framed by hallways and windows, doorways and walls, squeezed into a sliver of the entire frame. It’s claustrophobic, and on top of that, the characters’ neighbors constantly pop into these slivers of space that the characters exist in, adding additional pressure and constriction. Only in the rented apartment, when Chan and Chow are together, do the characters have room to breathe and let down their guard.
In addition, this sense of constraint lends each shot the sensation that we, as audience members, are spying on the main characters – viewing them through windows and mirrors, seeing reflections, hints and images of the characters true selves. As such, Wong and Doyle create this overwhelmingly pervasive sense that the characters are being watched, and we are complicit.
In the framing, Chow and Chan are almost always separated, going through parallel motions in parallel hallways or parallel mirror panes, but irrevocably apart because of the society they live in. And the color and lighting reflect this sense of melancholic isolation. The backgrounds are painted with rich crimson hues, complemented by diffuse lighting and silhouettes trailing each of the protagonists. For as much color as there is in each frame, shadows dominate as well.
All of these compositional elements contribute to how we see Chow and Chan and how we understand their complex emotions and achings for each other without many words being exchanged by either character. While In the Mood for Love is nowhere near as abstracted as The Assassin in how it conveys its story, it is valuable to consider how the tools that Wong and Doyle employ have been used to even greater effect in The Assassin.