Week 3 Reading/Viewing

Here’s an article from American Cinematographer on Robert Elswit‘s lensing of Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2008).

Here’s an article about Jack Cardiff, who shot many of Powell and Pressburger‘s films, including Black Narcissus (1948). Here’s an accompanying gallery of images from his films.

Here’s some info about Nam June Paik‘s work of anti-cinematography, Zen for Film (1961).

Clips we saw in class:

The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928):

http://www.criticalcommons.org/Members/kfortmueller/clips/the-passion-of-joan-of-arc-1928-the-torture/view

Black Narcissus (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1948):

There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2008):

 

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.

Cinematography in East Asian Cinema

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.

Hou Hsiao-Hsien and the Long Shot

In the article, ““We Just Did Long Takes Every Time”: Hou Hsiao-hsien on The Assassin” from filmmakermagazine.com, it is discussed that director Hou Hsiao-Hsien uses the cinematography in The Assassin to really tell the story. It’s not really a secret that The Assassin does not have a completely coherent plot, and that added on top of the average person not having an extensive knowledge of the Tang Dynasty, The Assassin is a bit of a complex movie to follow. However, Hsiao-hsien’s close work with director of photography, Mark Lee, led to some beautifully mastered scenes throughout the movie.

As the title of the article suggests, Hsiao-Hsien and Lee took long shots of almost every scene in the movie unless it was absolutely necessary to change it up (i.e., the fight scenes since the actors/actresses were not classically trained fighters). Most of the changes in depth were done in post production because Hsiao-Hsien and Lee felt that the long shot was the best possible shot for the entire movie and wanted to have that footage for almost every shot.

Hsaio-Hsien also did not want to do injustice to the scenery and locations they shot on, so barely any filters were used throughout post production, and what you see in the long shot is what you get in the long shot.

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?

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.

 

 

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?