“The Antithesis of What We Might Expect”:
Viewing The Assassin in the New Punk Cinema Tradition
I heard that when The Assassin was screened at the 68th Cannes International Film Festival the reaction among critics was not whether or not Hou Hsiao-hsien’s film was the most beautiful film at the festival, but if it was the most beautiful film ever made. So how is it that countless audience members who are attracted to HHH’s films based on glowing film reviews claim that watching his films is pure torture (nothing happens, they say) before walking out feeling animosity towards his films? To answer this question, I study the film techniques and narrative form of The Assassin as part of the punk cinema tradition. After all, negative reactions to HHH films remind me of those elicited by audiences who enthusiastically attend punk shows--consider the responses to late 1970s England punk band Sex Pistols or early 1990s Taiwan punk band LTK Commune performances--yet depart perplexed because their expectations were perhaps based on traditional norms and reference points that the artists seemingly had no intention of acknowledging. To make this case, I follow a description by Stacy Thompson from Nicholas Rombes’ edited book New Punk Cinema: "But the punk cinema aesthetics is, in fact, the antithesis of what we might expect. Instead of fast-moving narratives, numerous cuts both within and between shots, innumerable scenes, and frequent jump cuts, punk film-makers do just the opposite. To resist the easy commodification of their films, they slow their narrative pace to a crawl, scarcely move the camera, make infrequent cuts and, in general, forego most of the techniques that would lend their films commercial viability” (25). Just as punk music avoids mainstream conventions but retains a loyal following, HHH’s The Assassin eschews techniques expected of popular filmmakers yet resonates with an arthouse scene accustomed to his strategies.