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In an early scene in Moonlight, Juan tells Chiron that he will one day have to figure out who he is, that no one else can tell him that, or force him to be someone he is not. This early scene looms over the end of the film, where a now “hard” Chiron returns to Miami to see Kevin, his first and only lover. Kevin tells Chiron, among other things, that his carefully cultivated appearance of toughness is “not you.” I’ve been thinking about this ending since I saw the film last night.

My initial reaction was confusion tending toward dissatisfaction. The first two-thirds of the film was characterized by an expertly sustained atmosphere of dread. The last third is not. It seemed somehow more dissolute, less unified, an abandonment of what the film had been building. And a similar dissoluteness characterized the storyline, with the fundamental question of who Chiron is being left unanswered. It seemed a cop-out.

But this first impression was, I am increasingly convinced, a mistake. The ending of the film does have an element of dissolution, but this is not the product of evading the question raised by what came before. It offers instead a very definite answer to that question.

The middle third of the film culminates in Chiron’s moment of self-discovery on the beach (with Kevin). At this point it can seem that Chiron has figured out who he is. The question of self-identity was raised earlier in the film in the context of Chiron being called a faggot and asking, in the heartbreaking manner of a child, “am I a faggot?” Juan’s answer — that he might be gay, but is not a faggot, and that he doesn’t need to know now if he is gay — sets up puberty as the obvious time at which Chiron will discover who he is. And the beach scene appears to confirm this. Then it can seem as if all that is left is the question of self-reliance: now that he knows who he is, will he be honest about it? Or will he cover up his true self with layers of deceit (not just to others, but also to himself)?

But to think in this way is to misunderstand the film. First, because it is only half the story. Chiron struggles not just with his sexual identity, but also with the question of whether he is hard or soft. By the normal standards, he is clearly soft (sensitive, withdrawn, not aggressive), though this is complicated by the fact that Kevin affirms to Chiron early in life that he (Kevin) knows Chiron is hard. And there is a toughness to Chiron that shouldn’t be overlooked. Nonetheless, by the normal use of the term, and by general perception, Chiron is unambiguously soft.

Still, it might seem as if Chiron has a clear identity (black, gay, soft) that he can either embrace or deny. The ending of the film is designed to show us that this is too simplistic, and its dissoluteness is in service of that end. Chiron, in Atlanta, has made himself into someone hard, at least someone with the trappings of hardness, though several scenes indicate to us that the soft interior is not vanished. We also learn that “no one has touched” him since that night with Kevin. So a first pass reading of these changes is that Chiron has been dishonest with himself, has abandoned his knowledge of who he is. That is certainly the impression I got from the very first shot of the film’s final third. But it is a mistake, a mistake the film deliberately encourages in order more thoroughly to undermine it.

If it were truly the case that Chiron in Atlanta is living a lie, a denial of who he is, then the return to Miami to see Kevin again should be a cathartic stripping back of the lies with which he has gilded himself. But it is not. It is much more ambiguous.

The basic reason is simple: human beings are not static, identity is not static. Chiron, in making his exterior hard, has changed himself. I do not mean that he is no longer fundamentally soft, but he is at least someone who, though, soft, has learned to survive in a world that demands that he be hard. Thus, when Kevin tells him that all of this is a lie, is false to who he is, it is not the voice of Chiron’s own self that speaks through Kevin. It is rather the cry of the past, of the Chiron of a decade ago. But the claim of our past selves on our present is always complicated, and cannot be trusted. The return to the old environment brings back old habits, old memories. It tempts Chiron to return to who he once was. But the attempt to be who one was previously is no less a lie than the attempt to be hard when one is soft.

Thus the ending of the film is ambiguous. Chiron goes to Kevin’s home, in a scene clearly meant to parallel the beach scene. But is this parallel to be read as a true parallel, or as a contrast? Is Chiron returning to who he truly is? Is he having a moment of rediscovery with Kevin? Or is he merely being tempted by a past that is no longer open to him? It could be either. One would need to know what happens next to be sure. What the end of the film does here is re-open the question, to throw Chiron back into a state of not knowing who he is, who he wants to be. The ending of the film is dissolute because Chiron himself is dissolute.

Film: The Assassin
Director: Hou Hsiao-Hsien


An assassin finds that she no longer wishes to kill.

We first see the assassin, Yinniang, as she is commanded by her master to kill a man. “His guilt condemns him.” We watch her sneak up on him as he rides a horse: one instant he is sitting erect, the next he is cut down. The horse runs on as he slumps over. The scene is shot in black and white, as if to capture the austerity of her calling, the pitilessness of the “way of the sword.”

Yinniang is ordered again to kill. She approaches her target, finds him with a child on his lap. She cannot kill him, and leaves. When confronted by her master, she says that she could not kill in front of the child. Her master scolds her, says she lacks resolve. So far as we know, this is true: it is the child who stayed her hand. That is to say, not an inner decision but something external that overpowers her will, which is a will to kill, to follow the way of the sword.

Her master orders her to kill again, her own cousin this time (Tian Ji’an), to whom she was once betrothed. Besides the emotional ties, there are delicate political factors in play, an unstable alliance between Weibo (ruled by Tian Ji’an) and a neighboring power that threatens to be disrupted if she carries out her assignment. This is the reason she gives to her master when she returns, the deed once more undone: the time was not right to kill him, for it would plunge Weibo into chaos.

Such is her explicit reasoning, but it is a paper-thin veneer over the reality: she no longer desires to kill. She does not wish to be an assassin. And indeed, looking back, this applies even in the second case, only she had not realized it. The film is thus the coming to consciousness of this unconscious shift. She was an assassin; now she is not. The first time, the excuse may be believed, and treated as a weakness. The second time, it falls away. She cannot fool herself twice.

The film, it is said, disdains plot. That is untrue. The plot is both clear and strictly followed, but it concerns Yinniang’s internal development. The external plot—her past, the political tensions in China at that time, and so forth—matter only insofar as they contextualize this internal development, and not in their own right. They are brought in only so far as is necessary to make clear her state of mind.

It is a triumph of the film that her inner life is made clear without reliance on the usual indicators. Her face is generally impassive. She speaks little. There are no voiceovers to let us know her thoughts. No, there is only the camera, delicately hovering, drifting, capturing those moments that reveal to us what matters of the world in which Yinniang exists and comes to know herself.

Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin is a film I will remember.

 

There must be very two, before there can be very one. Let it be an alliance of two large, formida­ble natures, mutually beheld, mutually feared, before yet they recognize the deep iden­tity which beneath these disparities unites them. (R. Waldo Emerson, “Friendship”)

Carol is an agonizing working out of this truth so well expressed by Emerson, the truth that every relationship is a meeting of two individuals who are fully formed as individuals, no matter how much they may be re-formed by the relationship. In the abstract this is a beautiful, ennobling truth, the sort of truth that sounds a note of falseness if not expressed, as Emerson expresses it, in language befitting its grandeur.

Carol is a working out of this truth not in the abstract but in the details. It is here that it becomes agonizing, without loss of its beautiful and ennobling nature. For what the film shows is the risk that such individuality – which, as Emerson also knew, always entails partiality – however much it may be undergirded by a deep identity, nevertheless may stand in the way of, and chip away at, that identity. Carol depicts, with extreme sensitivity, the motions that small and large, personal and societal, drive individuals apart even as they are drawn ineluctably together.

The overall feeling the film left me with was of emptiness, though that is a dangerous word to use in describing it. It is perhaps a testament to the film’s power that, two days after having seen it, I still cannot find the word that will do justice to both the complexity and unity of this feeling. I will stick with ‘emptiness,’ then, and try to explicate it. It is not a negative emptiness, but a positive one, a sort of pit that reminds you it is a cavity capable of housing life. I say that the feeling has complexity because it is the product of the many namable emotions the film evoked: rage, sadness, frustration, happiness. And I say that it has unity because each of those emotions, and others, were subsumed by the overarching feeling that I have only been able to call emptiness, a feeling that allows them to exist together and in tension but precludes any naïve state of pure rage, pure happiness, pure anything. Only the delicate balance.

The mastery of the film lies in its ability to force you feel, utterly and without reservation, every precarious moment of the relationship between Carol and Therese: the whimsicality and arbitrariness of its beginning; the way it brought together, but brought together only partially, two people who were complete individuals before they met, and remained so even after; the way this mutual partiality led them to approach the relationship wholly differently, and at times to chafe against one another; the way the external world threw up extraneous and lamentable barriers to their relationship, as if the internal inconsistencies were not enough; and finally the ambiguity and uncertainty of their final (revealed) meeting, the happy but inscrutably wry expression on Carol’s face, the unexplained and multiply interpretable softening of Therese’s earlier wounded-animal-coldness over tea.

In ways I still struggle to express, Carol forced me, with all the individuality and partiality that has coalesced around my own struggle to live, to experience all of that, and the sum total of that, the abiding reconfiguration wrought in me by the film, is this but imperfectly namable feeling I have, for lack of anything else, called ‘emptiness.’