Tang Dynasty Art and The Assassin

Traditional Chinese painting usually depicts a large landscape with minimal, if any, human presence. The reasons why are varied: a diminished role of the individual relative to Western culture, Tao-ist emphasis on nature, at one point many of the artists (mostly nobility) were kicked out of the court and only had landscapes to look at anyway. In class we talked about why Hou Hsiao-hsien would have such long and lingering shots on the landscape, with no action or dialogue occurring. I think his choice to include these scenes and let them sit for so long ties the “aesthetic tradition” that Dr. Zinman mentioned to the modern movement of film as a meditative aid. The traditional paintings and these natural scenes are so similar in composition that the relation must be intentional. The extremely wide field-of-view of both traditional painting and The Assassin forces the viewer to evaluate their role in what they are viewing (both the art itself and the environment it depicts. Below are a few examples of traditional painting from during and after the Tang dynasty, as well as some stills from The Assassin.

Tang Dynasy Example
Post-Tang Example


I think the aesthetic similarities are very clear. You’ll notice the poems written near the top of the paintings; the sparse and frequently poetic dialogue in The Assassin serves such a purpose in the movie. An interesting question to arise out of this is, why is Hou Hsiao-hsien emulating this traditional style? The obvious answer is that as part of adapting a 9th century text he will also adapt 9th century visual art.

However, I believe there are political aspects to it as well. The beauty and majesty of the landscapes contrast sharply with the confined (though luxurious) spaces of the Wei Bo court and mansions. The mood and tone of these places also contract; in the wide open spaces of the landscapes we take a break from the scheming and arguing of the court. Hou Hsiao-hsien invites us to step back from politics during the serene nature shots. It is ultimately on top of a mountain, with mist rolling over the peak, where Nie Niang tells her master that she will no longer follow her politically motivated commands.

Another interesting aspect of these scenes lies in the production. Filming of The Assassin took place in both China and Taiwan.  The two nations share a history and culture of which the landscapes in mainland China are a central feature. It must be difficult for Hou Hsiao-hsien to separate these beautiful natural landmarks from the unfortunate political situation that divides them from him. But separating the two is exactly what I think he asks us to do when he lingers on one of the many beautiful natural shots in the movie.

Leave a Reply