The Assassin Cinematography

Immediately, we have no idea what is going on in The Assassin. And to my amazement, by the end, I still indeed had no idea what was going on. But that is not what makes the movie good. It is the never-ending sequence of beautiful shots.

First– the colors were amazing. Right off the bat, the movie is in black and white. This lasts until the title is displayed– a subtle yet clever indication that everything we have seen thus far was a flashback. Afterwards, the movie is an explosion of flamboyant colors. Particularly in the ELS taken outdoors during travel, their bright outfits contrast the natural greens surrounding them. But these color contrasts served more as contrast between their complex way of life vs. the simplicity of nature. There is something comforting and refreshing about witnessing trees blowing in the wind right after listening to some general babble about world domination for fifteen minutes.

Framing and camera movement went hand-in-hand in The Assassin. They minimized cuts (only when the scene changed or greatly during combat). When multiple people in a room were talking, rather than showing a LS of everyone, they used a MS that slowly but surely panned/tilted over to the next speaker seamlessly with dialogue. And the shots would last for several minutes at a time. I have never seen that in a movie before, and to me was by the far the coolest attribute of the entire film (aside from the unexpected, yet badass outro music).

Hsiao-Hsen played around with focus and layers (depth) to the extent that some of the dialogue and plot progression are utterly useless. While the general and his wife spend twenty minutes discussing how much they pity the assassin, the camera is slowly shifting around between translucent curtains and alternating focus on various layers such as candles or, at one point, the assassin herself. This adds an element of surprise that is usually obtained with rapid cuts. Instead, the assassin is slowly focused into view, and you panic nonetheless.

Did the colors mean anything else to you? Were the layers symbolic perhaps? And although most of the shots were smooth, they were still handheld (you can constantly see a slight tremble in the camera movements). Was that a good or bad call for a movie aiming for such beauty?

Hou Hsiao-Hsien on The Assassin

This article, published before the American release of The Assassin, contains an interview with the film’s director. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/jan/11/hou-hsiao-hsien-the-assassin-martial-arts-movies

After grappling with the murk of The Assassin‘s final act, I’ll admit I found some mild vindication in Hou’s admission that “I don’t even make films to communicate with an audience. I am the only person who I am speaking to.” Just about any viewer of the film could tell you the same thing (there’s no way a director with Hou’s obvious talents could produce The Assassin and simultaneously care about speaking to the audience directly through plot), but once it comes from the director himself, it goes a level deeper. The plot is intentionally turbid, but piecing it together doesn’t really hold the key to the film so much as provide a logical framework for its succession of images — as Hou himself admits, “I don’t think that plot is the only way to appeal to an audience. The audience can catch the message of a film through landscape, character, details.” Of course, extracting meaning from the film is still a task, but Hou himself seems to suggest that it’s best accomplished by considering the form of the film rather than its narrative.

Week 3 – Searcher: Interview with Hou Hsiao-hsien

The following is a brief interview with Hou Hsiao-hsien discussing his admiration for Yasujirō Ozu, a Japanese film director.

I think the part of this interview that is most notable is Hou Hsia-hsien’s description of Ozu as a “mathematician” in regards to his intimate portrayal of Japanese family life. In The Assassin, the viewer witnesses the complex intricacies of a family, such as the tension between Tian Ji’an and his wife regarding Huji. It seems that Hsia-hsien draws heavily on Ozu for inspiration in his depiction of the intimacy between family members. He explains in the interview that Ozu “always used the family as a backdrop” and “depicted the relationship between two generations.” I think the generational anecdote in this interview is less applicable as the generational conflict in The Assassin differs from the way it occurs traditionally with Ozu, as the plot is focused on cousins with the parents’ history providing context for their relation.

While Hsia-hsien doesn’t make any direct reference to the cinematography of Ozu in this interview, I think he most notably draws upon Ozu’s usage of shots that linger on the setting (URL). One of the greatest strengths of The Assassin was the cinematography in filming the general landscape, particularly shots of the mountains. The following shots I believe to be examples of Hsia-hsien following the tradition of Ozu in this way:

fullscreen: https://streamable.com/s/6inma/piffzp

What Motivated Hou Hsiao Hsien’s Direction Choices in The Assassin and Why Was the Plot Underdeveloped?

The Assassin provides a brilliant display of the uses of cinematography through color choices, camera angles, focal points, framing and more, all of which have critics raving. However, the movie leaves a lot of questions for the average viewer. The biggest question of all, what was the plot of the movie? In order to get an idea about what may or may not have happened in the movie, who the characters, were and why the director left so much of the movie’s plot shrouded in mystery, I decided to research a little about Hou’s motivation for the movie, how I am supposed to really watch the movie, and what the plot of the movie really was.

The first article I came across which held some promise was from The Guardian titled “The Assassin director: why I gave plot the chop.” 

The article provides a little bit of insight into the mind of Hou and why he chose not to include the plot in great detail. Hou seeks to break away from the conventional film style to tell a story more through images rather than spoken words. Hou believes that the landscape, characters, and details can all deliver his message of what the movie plot is really about. Personally, I disagree with his entire method of letting the landscape speak to the plot because I saw no real value outside of the shiny and pretty factor of the lengthy scenic shots of a lake with fog curling over it, a steep cliff side, or a sprawling field of grain. The scenery was pretty but added no real value to the story other than the setting and each landscape shot could have been a 3 second segment instead of the long 30 second to a minute pauses we took to observe these scenes. Hou talks about how he shot 440,000 feet of film and then edited it down to the final version. Perhaps some of the plot, as the common viewer sees it, got lost among the large portion of film he chose not to include when he fit the film plot to his style. The most important part of the Guardian’s interview however is the discussion of Hou’s upbringing in Taiwan and how he doesn’t feel a connection to the Chinese people. He explains that he cannot relate to the people of China but can observe and understand the things like the scenic landscape. This revelation helps explain why Hou spent so much time detailing the natural elements of the province and the elegance of the buildings while leaving his characters and plot more of a mystery.

The second article I chose to read provided a little bit more insight into how I am supposed to enjoy the movie. It is a film review presented by IndieWire titled “Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Wuxia Epic ‘The Assassin’ Astonishes Cannes”.

The article begins with a disclaimer that many westerners who are not familiar with the culture will have a hard time following the plot of the movie. After having watched the movie I agree that it is difficult to follow the plot but I am not convinced that just westerners would have a hard time understanding it. I personally believe that anyone watching the movie from a non-critic point of view but instead purely for enjoyment will have a hard time following along. That isn’t to say that people won’t enjoy the movie for its pretty scenery or excellent camera work but I do believe that most people would not watch it for the plot. This article even alludes to the fact that it isn’t the plot which makes this a good movie with its description that “there is little talking and fitful action in this $15 million period epic” which leaves not much to build a plot on. Instead, the article goes on to talk about the beautiful countryside of waterfalls, insects and birds instead of what occurs between the characters in the film.

While I focused mostly on the motivations of Hou and the ways in which the film is intended to be watched, that is not all these articles contain. If you too were confused by the plot of the movie and the explanation in the first 2 articles I linked still left some questions I suggest either http://mikefahey.blogspot.com/2015/09/cheat-sheet-for-hou-hsiao-hsiens.html which provides a history as well as description of each character or this summary and review mix which outlines most of what happens in the movie. https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-assassin-2015

If you had as much difficulty following the characters in the film as well as their relations to each other like I did, I would suggest checking out this family/relationship tree of Yinniang. (source)

Alone in the Frame – Cinematography in The Assassin

The Assassin is utterly confusing.  The movie spends most of its time in very long takes with very little dialogue or exposition in the midst of what tends to be a fairly complex plot mired in political intrigue and family promises.  However, amidst all of the confusion of the movie’s long shots, I found particularly taken by every shot any tighter than a medium-long.  The cinematographer does some truly beautiful things with depth of field, framing and movement which allow the emotions of the characters to seep into the camera.  The most significant of these to me was his use of isolation.

 

I began to notice this during the scene which follows Yinniang (the assassin) returning home.  She steps into what I believe to be her mother’s room for the first time in what must be years, for all of the other members of her mother’s residence seem quite shocked and excited that she has returned.  However, instead of what we expect to be a scene of tender reunion, we are greeted by a scene of bitter isolation.  Throughout their entire dialogue, there is not a single shot in which the two of them share the frame.  This scene continues to build in potency of emotion, cutting back and forth between the two of them until it climaxes in Yinniang weeping silently over a gift of jade her mother gives her, still alone in the shot, her mother just out of frame, doing nothing to comfort her.  This scene fleshes out each of their individual characters and the painful relationship they share quite quickly without even the need for words.

Throughout the movie, Yinniang continues to be isolated in the frame, except in moments of violence and in a scene towards the end of the film as she returns to her friend.  What continues to make these scenes of isolation so powerful is the contrasting cuts to wide shots of her cousin’s family.  In every shot he occupies, he is accompanied by his son and/or his wife (sometimes even his concubine).  Cutting rapidly between these two images reinforces the pang of her separation from family that she loved, and her reluctance to carry out her mission of killing him. 

Cinematography in The Assassin

Cinematography could be used to describe The Assassin in a single word. It’s difficult to keep the scent of the plot as the movie progresses, but it’s almost unimportant. What basic plot elements we glean are fairly unoriginal conceptually. It feels dirty to draw comparisons between the female assassin main character and modern “comic book” movie heroes, but she seems to fit the part. She’s an omnipotent, omnipresent mediator between good and evil. With the critical elements of a story in place, it’s what Hsiao-Hsen does with the camera that captures the attention. For me, it is a movie of waiting and looking. Shots are beautifully framed, often long or medium-long. All sorts of light distortions and visual artifacts are used to obscure the action as it happens. This is done in an effective mimicry of what the assassin herself would see, and how she would have to move and wait.

The compositions Hsiao-Hsen  creates seem almost like a common ground between photography and cinematography at points. I distinctly remember one particular scene where I was confident the movie had frozen. It hadn’t, the scene was simply meant for us to contemplate longer than we typically might when watching a feature film.

Interior shots in The Assassin are often slightly stifling and claustrophobic, especially in sequences of action. This is a large piece of the sombre, silent tone that is present throughout the film. It is evocative of cultural and behavioral norms that do not allow for self-expression. The dialogue, when it occurs, is often strained. The only signs of smiling or joy come from the children who are present in the film. These small glimmers of joy are something the assassin herself seems unwilling to snuff out.

Outdoor scenes in the film are sweeping and expansive, indicative of the freedom they eventually represent for the movie’s namesake. The locations are breathtaking, and it makes you wonder why anyone would want to spend time in the bureaucratic, stiff interior of the period buildings.

 

 

Week 2 – Viewer: Mise en scène regarding The Grand Budapest Hotel

I want to explore a few aspects of mise en scène in The Grand Budapest Hotel such as color, camera angles, and framing and their effects on the essence of the movie.

Color plays an important role in determining the mood of the film. In the earlier portion of the movie, most of the colors were warm (faded red, orange) – giving the viewers a feeling of comfort and indicating that the events occurring are slower and more relaxed. On the other hand, the colors shown during the latter part of the film include more reds and pinks, which means that the events occurring are more rushed and sharp. These color schemes tell the audience that they should be at the edge of their seats.

The images above show scenes that are more relaxed.

These images above depict scenes that are sharper.

In this film, camera angles were primarily used to show the point of views of the various characters. This allowed the audience to link with the characters and watch the events unfold as if they were one of the characters.

This image shows us the lobby boy’s perspective of looking into the mirror.

A reoccurring type of framing that occurred in the film was symmetry. There were many scenes where everything in the camera’s scope was symmetrical. The filmmakers probably chose to showcase symmetry often in order to emphasize the strictness and uniform nature of the characters and time era. The following images are examples of symmetry in the film.

Factors of Cinematography Telling a Story

Hou Hsiao-Hsien directs his films in a way that is somewhat lost to western pop-culture that especially contrasts with Hollywood productions we are accustomed to. The Assassin resembles poetry more so than it does to a novel. It is common for western films to be plot-driven, feeding the audience information that guides them in the story’s narrative, but The Assassin gives the audience an abstraction of events and characters, leaving them to find the story for themselves. In this article, he claims that The Assassin doesn’t need to be plot driven because it is driven by things like landscape, setting, nature, characters, and details. The audience does not need a hand fed plot to find pleasure in watching his films. They can find it in these things much like a reader enjoys their poetry.

In turn, The Assassin has become a visual masterpiece, showing its prowess in its many forms of cinematography and portrayal. An important note is the use of long shots and extreme long shots in this film. Hou Hsiao-Hsien is known to use long shots very often when directing. His use of it in The Assassin helps establish the setting of scenes in an extraordinary manner. The scene depicted below was one of my favorites.

Its all filmed on location, with no CGI, and it looks beautiful as the clouds come rolling onto the mountain behind Yinniang’s master. It is serene and natural and feels like feudal China. The vastness of the cliff they are on reflects their power and the gentleness of the clouds reflects their grace and reverence. The long shot shows the characters existing in a real world and it helps immerse us in their world all while connecting us with the characters.

Another noticeable pattern was the kind of pans and tilts used throughout the film. Almost without fail, all of the pans were very slow. This reflects the tranquility of the people and environment that this film takes place in. Although a lot is happening in the film, it doesn’t feel rushed and it matches the structure and pace of the people within the frame. In long shots, as horse riders cross a plane, the camera remains focused on them as it gently pans to the left or right. As somebody walks or speaks to another character, the pan follows the person or the direction of their speech. This reflects important parts of 9th-century Chinese culture like respect, diplomacy, and patience while matching the slow-paced, natural feeling of the setting. Ultimately it adds to the existing immersion and poetic rhythm of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin.

You can see it here in this clip. Another important thing to note is the stark contrast between the pacing of fight scenes and the rest of the scenes. During fight scenes, cuts are very quick, the camera is moving faster, most of the time we are seeing medium or medium long shots, and the overall feel of the movie changes from tranquility to choreographed chaos.

Another one of my favorite cinematographic decisions in The Assassin is in the scene where Tian Ji’an and Huji, his concubine, are meeting in private. The camera is shooting this scene through a curtain as a filter. As the curtain flows back and forth, in and out of frame, accompanied by the use of Steadicam, it feels like we are looking through the eyes of somebody, spying on these people. Before it is even revealed to us that this is the case, we can feel it for ourselves because of this framing. It’s a very powerful and effective use of cinematography to immerse the audience and add an extra layer of realism and style.

Do you feel like the visual aspect of The Assassin and Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s poetic touches are enough to tell a compelling story? Are movies pleasurable to watch when they are not presented with a straightforward plot line? Did you feel or learn anything about the film through factors of cinematography that were meaningful to you?

Interesting Youtube Video For Shot Types

Today in class, we briefly covered the different types of shots: extreme long shot, medium shot, etc. This reminded me of a very interesting video that I saw on youtube last year that describes the different shots in more detail, as well as showing some impressive examples for each shot type. I highly recommend watching the video, even if it’s 20 minutes long. Also, as an interesting side note, their selection for the best close up is (spoiler alert) from the Passion of Joan of Arc, which we just watched part of in class.

I highly recommend watching this youtube channel’s (CineFix) other videos as well, as they are all very interesting and fun to watch

Depth of Field in The Assassin

Despite my overall dissatisfaction with The Assassin, I was able to appreciate much of the cinematography from director Hou Hsiao-Hsien.  Playing with the depth of field was a technique that provided particularly stunning shots.  The shot embedded below occurs early in the movie during the black and white stage, and it is a slow pan of a sunlit crop of trees.  The camera is deliberately focused on the tree that is closest in the frame, and the trees that are further away appear unfocused.  The shimmering effect of the sunlight streaming through the unfocused leaves was a stunning view that I was able to appreciate and left me hopeful for more stunning visuals later in the movie.  (I also wanted to embed only seconds 5-7, so only pay attention to those. On a related note, if anyone knows how to do that and would be willing to share, I would appreciate it!)

Another scene involving the Lord of the Wiebo and his wife inverted this depth of field style.  Shown out of focus in the immediate foreground were flickering candle flames.  The characters speaking in the background are the ones in focus behind the orbs of light.  And then even nearer than the candles, billowing curtains obscure the scene in front of the camera even more.  What do you think the significance of the curtains shielding the scene from our eyes is?

Throughout the film Hou Hsaio-Hsien used extreme long shots during depictions of characters journeys or other scenes of the mountainous setting.  His choice in using these shots was three-fold.  First, and most obviously, it showed off the beautiful location that the film was set in. Additionally, the landscape has a vastness and an emptiness to it in an extreme wide shot.  When the characters appear as little more than the size of a fingernail, it emphasizes their journey – how far they have traveled and how far they still have to go.  Both the beautiful scenic shots, and the juxtaposition of the vast shots against the tiny characters completing a dangerous journey reminds me of the cinematography that Peter Jackson employs in his Lord of the Rings franchise.  Comparing images from the two films highlights their similarities.  Lastly, because the extreme long shot is captured from such long distances and because the music in the film was all diagetic, these shots invoke a calm and serene world, which is abruptly shattered by staccato sequences of violence.