Films in Dialogue: Full Metal Jacket vs. The Human Condition

May 9, 2016

 

 

Following on from my previous video juxtaposing a Kubrick classic with a potential,  and unexpected, Japanese influence, here is another… besides the obvious narrative similarities between Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket and Part II of Masaki Kobayashi’s Human Condition Trilogy (both being about the dehumanising effects of military training, the bullying of a slightly weaker recruit, and the defiance of a slightly stronger one), several scenes and settings seem to echo each other directly, most notably the suicides which both occur in lavatories… was Kubrick more of a Japanese cinema buff than we might have assumed? You decide!

In Our Time (1982)

May 2, 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Director(s): Tao Te-Chen, Edward Yang, Ko I-Chen, Chang-Yi.

Country: Taiwan (Republic of China).

Year: 1982.

Duration: 106 mins.

Context: The first film of the Taiwanese New Wave.

Themes: Coming-of-age; Taiwanese identity.

Form: Four-part omnibus film, each part directed by one of four different directors.

Review:

Film industries have always taken the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach to innovation. Is a certain formula bringing in audiences and profits? Then commission a dozen more similar films. Understandable from a financial perspective perhaps, but somewhat uninspired artistically, and what happens when things really are ‘broke’, when the studios and producers are forced to seek a novel approach to rekindle audience interest? This is the kind of situation the Taiwan film industry found itself in, circa 1980.

The steady diet of romantic melodramas and epic martial-arts tales, directed by the same old veterans, was no longer cutting it for the dwindling, jaded Taiwanese audiences. And when they did go to the movies, it was more often than not to see the more appealing imports from Hong Kong, much smaller island than Taiwan but booming in film production and riding the crest of its ‘new wave’. There were no two ways about it, Taiwanese film needed a rejuvenation and the Hong Kong model, of letting loose young filmmakers to try something new, was the one to follow. Luckily the heads of the state-sponsored film studio CMPC had enough foresight at the helm to come up with a cunning plan. First-time directors would be offered opportunities working on multi-part omnibus films, each making individual segments (20-30 minutes long) to be released as one anthology film. This maximised the number of debutants gaining experience per film made, while spreading the costs and risks. First result of this initiative: the four-story film In Our Time, released in 1982.

Four stories, filmed by four different directors, all newcomers and mostly trained in film schools abroad where they picked up new ideas about cinema quite divergent from those of their Taiwanese elders. Each story is set in a different decade, moving forward chronologically (1950s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s) and with protagonists of increasing ages as time goes on (a boy of about 8, a young teenage girl, a university student, a married couple moving into their own flat for the first time). Thus goes the basic premise of In Our Time, but as with all omnibus films, not all parts are as strong as the others. In this case, the first two episodes are the most impressive and satisfying.


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The opener is ‘Little Dragonhead’, directed by Tao Te-chen, and centred around young Hsiao-mien, a loner kid, neglected by uncaring parents who seemingly prefer his brother, picked on at school, and whose only friend (and comfort blanket) is his beloved toy dinosaur. Essentially all the stakes are stacked in his favour to make us root for this boy, all the more so as the perspective is limited to his point-of-view and we, unlike the uncomprehending adults, get a glimpse into his inner world, which he’s often forced to escape to. We’re also in the privileged position of being able to recognise his artistic talent, whereas the adults around him mistakenly attribute his crayon portrait of his dinosaur to another child, and in any case they’ve had it up to here with his dinosaur obsession.

Things finally look up when he strikes a sweet friendship with the daughter of a neighbour, until irony strikes and adult matters get in the way: these neighbours are moving abroad permanently the next day and Hsiao-mien only realises at the very end that this was a farewell visit. True to its logic of being told from a boy’s viewpoint, we only find out when he does, setting the limits of what a child can know in an adult’s world.

What impresses most, alongside the intelligent performances induced from the children, is the nostalgic atmosphere conjured up by Tao. The 1950s setting is important, just like the 1960s one shall be in Yang’s segment, for both directors were making films about children set in the period of their own childhood. Wistful memories thus colour the mood, the dreamy dissolve-laden editing, and especially the music. All along Hsiao-mien’s tale is a period soundtrack, of 1950s pop, both Chinese and Western, most catchily the twangy guitar of Santo & Johnny’s instrumental 1959 classic Sleep Walk. It’s the kind of sound which would be at home in a Wong Kar-wai soundtrack, casting young Hsiao-mien as one of Wong’s romantic jilted-loner protagonists, before they even existed.


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No less atmospheric or languid is ‘Expectations’, Edward Yang’s section. Even more dissolves, fades-to-black punctuating scenes, soft hazy lighting, classical music on the soundtrack, the Beatles and the Vietnam war on TV, once again the sense of dreamy nostalgia is created through editing, image and sound. So often in coming-of-age stories it is young boys facing their rites of passage, so Yang’s exquisitely delicate treatment of teenage girl Hsiao-fen’s adolescent amorous awakenings is particularly refreshing.

It all kicks off when a new tenant, handsome, young, and male, moves into the spare room of the home Hsiao-fen lives in with her mother and older sister. Shortly, the lodger becomes the target of our protagonist’s secretly blossoming crush, and an ocean of previously unknown feelings is opened up to Hsiao-fen. She no longer has time to go play with her best school-friend, a short bespectacled boy. The internal reveries she loses herself in are rendered with sensitive economy by Yang through both sound and purely visual film-making.

One inconspicuous pan, from Hsiao-fen to her sister at the dinner table, sets up a later, far more crucial, identical camera movement. It occurs at the end of one of the most striking sequences in this short, a dissolve-montage of Hsiao-fen eyeing up the young male tenant topless on the front porch, his athletic body fetishised by the camera’s female gaze (uncommon in a medium which has so often personified the male viewer) which blends every slow shot of the boy into the next, only interrupting this stream to cut-in to a shot of a rapt, wide-eyed Hsiao-fen. But the final shot, in one brief pan, reveals that all along Hsiao-Fen’s sister was there too, sharing the view and she, being older, is far more likely to have a shot with the handsome tenant. What we thought was purely Hsiao-fen’s fantasy daydream, has been partially usurped by her own sister, setting up a triangular relationship that defines Hsiao-fen’s learning curve in this film. She’ll realise how mean she was to her little school-friend and make amends, but nonetheless something within her can never be the same again.


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The third story, Ko I-Cheng’s ‘Leapfrog’, ushers in a sharp change of mood. The dreamy atmosphere is replaced by comic chattiness from the get-go, when our student protagonist, ‘Fatty’, playfully introduces himself to us narrating over shots of he and his university cohorts. No, he’s not the slightly chubby one in the middle as his nickname might lead us to assume, he chimes, but the skinny one on the edge of the frame, that’s him. Because Fatty is now a dedicated member of the college biathlon team (hence the amphibian reference of the title) and has shed all traces of his former overweightness.

This is a young man with more than a passing resemblance to Benjamin in The Graduate. He has a restless sense of energy but no clear outlet for it, other than the upcoming biathlon race. He’s alienated from his businessman father who doesn’t quite understand him or why he wants to change his major to literature. He’s awkward, especially, and to his great frustration, around the opposite sex, but his inner monologues (while shyly glimpsing a pretty girl in a lift) reveal he’s a wannabe poet, reciting romantic lines in his head which he’d never have the audacity to actually utter. The dreamy dissolves and fades of the first two parts are replaced with a more conventional editing rhythm, their nostalgic mood into a rather odd allegory culminating with the biathlon race, where Fatty challenges a team of foreign students from the US… is this a commentary on Taiwan seeking to break free from its status as satellite? On its national pride? On a narrative level this is the most confused of the four, but plenty of scenes getting us to know Fatty reveal assured film-making touches.


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Part four, the least introspective and least concerned with romantic impulses, enters into even broader comedy territory, with a healthy dose of satire. Chang Yi’s ‘Say Your Name’ now has a young married couple as its central characters. They’ve just moved into a new apartment in the city and their first day reserves madcap situations aplenty; the wife forgets her name badge on her first day at work and is refused entry into her building (a literal identity crisis) while the husband, who stayed home. gets locked out when trying to retrieve his newspaper from the letterbox, wearing nothing more than a towel. Efforts to seek help from bemused, suspicious neighbours, or uncaring commuters in the street, leave him as frustrated as his wife is by locking horns against a bureaucratic wall. Adulthood and city living have their own shares of problems, life doesn’t get any simpler after the rites of passage of childhood and adolescence we witnessed in the previous parts, but if the film’s increasingly comic structure is anything to go by, maybe we become better at laughing it off.

In Our Time and its chronological coming-of-age structure (of its characters, of Taiwan growing into the urbanised island of the final episode, and of Taiwanese cinema itself) did win back Taiwanese audiences, at least momentarily, thanks to its novelty factor; an on-screen reflection so close to their own lives and experiences was a first for Taiwanese cinema. The Taiwanese New Wave, which it nudged into life, would go on to bigger, better things, pairing its earthy realist concerns with a radical long-take, long-shot aesthetic. From our vantage point, naturally, this film seems most noteworthy for announcing Edward Yang’s talent to the world, but as a whole, despite its unevenness, it is rich with promise and more than a little charm in its four different slices of Taiwanese eras. The highlights, ‘Expectations’ and ‘Little Dragonhead’, certainly belong alongside the best films about children 1980s world cinema had to offer.

Martin (George A. Romero, 1977)

March 20, 2016

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George Romero remains best known for single-handedly inventing the modern zombie genre, but this underrated, New Hollywood-era, teenage-angst movie with a serious twist saw him try his hand at a vampire film. Well, a vampire film of sorts shall we say, because we’re never entirely sure whether Martin (John Amplas), is indeed a blood-sucking pest or just a mentally-deranged young man whose subjectivity is vampirising the film’s. What’s fascinating about this ambiguity is how it positions this film among the newly self-conscious brand of ‘70s Hollywood cinema, made by a new generation of film-buff directors fully aware of the legacy of classical genre film, but equally wishing to bring it up to date. The opposition within young Martin stands in for the opposition between classical horror films and Romero’s necessary update – because much as some studio producers might like it, films and genres cannot keep regurgitating the same material ad nauseam, they must evolve as entertainment and as art.

What, besides ambiguity, makes Martin a more modern and less classical horror film? For a start, greater realism. Romero, like he did in Night of the Living Dead (1969), employs a documentary-style aesthetic, complete with handheld camera which back in 1977 was still synonymous with on-the-cuff immediacy, rather than the overused trope it is today. And Romero uses this aesthetic to plunge us right into the deep end. We begin the film with Martin’s attack on a young woman in a train carriage, complete with careful attention to detail again (a sedative-laden syringe and a razorblade are highlighted as part of Martin’s meticulous routine) for increased realism. This isn’t Bela Lugosi mystique, but a gritty what-if-vampires-were-real scenario.

His thirst for blood quenched, Martin and the train arrive in Pittsburgh, where he is due to move in with his uncle (Lincoln Maazel). This old Catholic curmudgeon clearly thinks something is fiendishly wrong with his nephew, if the garlic and crucifix, hung up outside the guest bedroom by way of a welcome, are anything to go by. But Romero doesn’t feed us any exposition until later into the film, so we watch on puzzled, intrigued and uncertain about the backstories of these two characters. This uneasy structure is reinforced by the fragmentary editing, already another sign that we’re no longer in the self-enclosed world of the classical cinema – things are literally seeping in from beyond the frame and from off-screen.

Case in point, the most remarkable of Romero’s artistic gambles in Martin, the black-and-white inserts of Martin in a more familiar representation of a 19th century vampire, gallivanting in period costume. They deliberately invoke mainstays of classic horror like Dracula or the angry village mob from James Whale’s Frankenstein. Are these flashbacks from his past, since after all, if he is indeed a vampire, he is supposedly over 80 years old? Are they an insight into his state of mind? Is this how he sees himself and the attacks he commits? Is it merely his self-image as vampire because it is the accustomed cinematic image of the vampire? It is as if the old and the new Hollywood, and the old and new horror genre, are in dialogue with each other through the interplay of these black-and-white shots typifying old horror films with the less conventional scenes making up the rest of the movie.

Interestingly, with his rigid dogmatism the uncle is the least sympathetic character, clearly the one Romero has the least time for, and even though Martin, whether deranged or vampire, is stealing blood and lives, Romero still forces us to empathise with him. This is a vampire character as troubled young man, almost a metaphor for the highs, lows and emotional turbulence of adolescence and young adulthood.

My Top 20 of 2015 (Part 2: 10-1)

February 10, 2016

Part 1 (20-11) here.

 

10. Birdman11383_1

 

 

Who said unusual, creative movies can’t still garner major awards attention, including the Best Picture Oscar no less? This Charlie Kaufman-esque satire blends life, art, fiction, reality, fame, the layers of the human psyche and a lot more while attacking just about anyone its splatter-gun approach can target, from Hollywood juggernauts to bitter theatre critics. Granted, it’s often got too many ideas for its own good, and with its attempt to compare Raymond Carver naturalism against blockbuster superhero franchises, or its casual intellectual namedrops (Roland Barthes anyone?), it’s never exactly sure this film is as profound and meaningful as it perhaps thinks it is. But that’s not the point, because momentum is the keyword here, and from Lubezki’s handheld takes (cleverly post-edited to seem like one long loop), the percussion jazz score, and the intensely committed performances, everything is there to entice us to keep ticking along to the film’s brio and panache. Sit back, enjoy being propelled into the ride, and witness what might very well be the film to bring about a Keaton-aissance (inspired casting) to rival McConaughey’s.

9. Timbuktutimbuktu1.original

 

 

Due to the challenges of making films in Africa, Abderrahmane Sissako has made just three feature films in 13 years, but all have been deeply impressive in different ways. When watching Timbuktu it is clear that no other filmmaker could make such a graceful film about a topic as increasingly terrifying and anger-inducing as the barbaric rule of draconian Islamic fundamentalists. Here the focus is, rather than on the Middle East, on Mali where the titular town was occupied by militant Islamists, reminding us that West Africa too is victim to these deluded radicals.

Kidane is a young cowherder, who lives on the margins of the town with daughter and wife, but is drawn into the fundamentalists’ grasp due to a clash with another farmer that goes badly wrong (the raw primality of this scene in a widescreen long shot is one stunning defining-point of the film). Around this central tale, Sissako takes in the injustices perpetrated by these soulless men hungry for power but deprived of any sense of inner peace, especially towards women. But they are not mere sadistic villains, otherwise there would be no hope of understanding them as a phenomenon, so Sissako also paints their human side, their doubts, their weaknesses, their secret conversations about football even though they impose a ban on the game, or their baffled silence when a defiant fishmonger refuses to take her gloves off. The net result is a cry of anguish and injustice at what is happening, yet still somehow lucid and compassionate rather than angry or bitter.

 

8. Wild Tales15SZIFRON2-articleLarge

 

 

 

Backed by the Almodóvar brand-name as exec-producer, this Argentine omnibus of six independent stories of espresso-black humour managed to be funnier, and yes wilder, than anything the estimable Spaniard has directed himself for a long time. The segments vary in genre register and in quality (everyone will have their own favourites), but a twisted, absurdist tone is a constant factor across all six. Each follows characters who have been wronged, and who all explode – be it due to personal breakdowns, a need for revenge, or exasperation at hitting a bureaucratic brick wall – in various, but equally spectacular, fashion. Sometimes, we all need to lose control and stage an affront against the social and moral barriers which otherwise keep us in check, so for the most part our sympathies and laughs coincide with these rampaging crusaders… Be it the viciously and unexpectedly funny opening prologue story set on a plane; the showdown of machismo and male one-upmanship between two stubborn, irate drivers in the middle of a desert; or the story of a demolitions expert (the wonderful Ricardo Darín) who’s had it up to here with officious, patronising jobsmiths. The tales inevitably descend into chaos (in unpredictably and wickedly enjoyable ways), but somehow Szifron’s anthology manages to end on a note of hope, a note blood-soaked and soggy with wedding cake perhaps, but hopeful nonetheless.

 

7. The Look of Silencelookof

 

 

 

This companion piece to Joshua Oppenheimer’s earlier doc The Act of Killing (which I wrote about here) shows the other side of the story, but this time focusing on the victims (Adi, who lost a brother during the Indonesian genocide of the late 1960s). The first film left us with an almost perverse shock at these killers unspooling their damaged psyches in full candour (they are after all still in power and have nothing to fear for their gruesome murders, rapes and torture). But The Look of Silence leaves a more human, poignant note thanks to the dignity and strength of Adi. and numerous tender scenes of his elderly parents (how they deal with these memories is interesting too) and his own young children. In six meetings organised by Oppenheimer, he faces several of the men, now in old age, responsible for the killing of his brother, among thousands of others, and gently prods them with questions that illicit various reactions, although never explicit regret or shame. Facing these men must be for Adi an act of tremendous courage, but for us the look Oppenheimer’s doc affords us is a lesson in the inhumanity man is and always has been capable of against his fellow man throughout history. All this in a film as empathetic as it possibly can be… like its preceding film it is a must-see.

 

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 6. 45 Years

 

 

 

This two-hander charts the possibly life-changing six days before the 45-year anniversary of Kate (Rampling) and Geoff (Courtenay), when news from the Swiss Alps bring back unwanted memories. On the surface, it appears quite different from Andrew Haigh’s previous effort, the terrific modern romance Weekend, but his masterly directorial control and writing are every bit as much in evidence. The emotion, the drama, the skilful revelation of characters’ backstories to make their lives feel ‘lived-in’ – all these are beautifully and organically evoked.

In one scene, Courtenay poignantly but tenderly recounts previously untold memories reaching back 50 years to Rampling, who just through reaction shots reveals a wife hurt at not being sure she knows her husband anymore. No flashbacks needed, just close-ups, acting, and the strength of Haigh’s writing. The metaphors he comes up with are what makes this so affecting long after it’s over. Ghosts of the past literally frozen in time; a ticking bomb ready to resurface and haunt the present as soon as the ice melts; the loft as a space of stored-up memories, many of them suppressed. Even the expressionistic sound design of icy winds blowing veer the film almost into ghost story atmosphere. Elsewhere the motif of time, of clocks, of ironically a Swiss watch Kate ponders about buying as Geoff’s anniversary present, also encapsulates the pain of what she is going through (were all these years really what she thought they were or must she now rethink everything?). And, in a subtly knock-out ending, Haigh even gives us the best cinematic use of the Platters’ ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ since Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien!

 

5. Son of Saulsonofsaulgezarohrigrifleathead-628x348

 

 

László Nemes’ first feature is wildly ambitious, attempting to tackle a subject (the Shoah) that for all its cinematic portrayals is understandably hard to do justice to. Impressively he pulls it off, accomplishing a drama of intense momentum, comparable to other WW2 tales about survivor’s guilt like Elem Klimov’s Come and See and Sergei Loznitsa’s In the Fog. The equal of those films, Son of Saul is a masterful tour-de-force of technique, both visual and aural.

A complex multi-layered sound-design infiltrates our ears with noises suggesting terrible things going on beyond our field of sight; screams, beatings, shootings, bodies falling, all heard but never seen. We never look death in the eye, hence Nemes adroitly sidesteps one of the fundamental problems in visual representation of the Holocaust. Its unimaginable horror will retain its necessary impact by not being shown, but only hinted at by sounds or in the out-of-focus margins of the frame. In carefully choreographed long-takes, the roving camera almost constantly follows, Dardennes-style, our protagonist Saul (Géza Röhrig, whose forceful performance helps propel the film) and just about all else beyond the frame is implied but unseen.

Saul is part of the Sonderkommando, those pitiful concentration camp inmates who just about survive by being tasked with cleaning the gas chambers for the Nazis, so their extermination machine can keep clocking. The tension between what can be seen and heard, and what cannot, also applies to what it must be like in Saul’s shoes, desperately human (and hence wanting to live) in a world and conditions thoroughly inhuman. He too needs to relegate the horrors to his periphery in order to live with himself and wrestle with his own conscience, possible redemption, and, finally, his sanity.

4. Phoenixphoenix1

 

 

 

Phoenix is, much like Carol, an elegant, masterfully directed, piece of neo-classical cinema. Christian Petzold, who has been going from strength to strength for many years now, reunites with his acting leads from 2012’s Barbara. Nina Hoss is the fragile Nelly, a concentration camp survivor left unrecognisable after facial rehabilitation surgery. Despite ostensibly being a new person with a new face, she roams post-war Berlin, a place itself in need of regeneration and a new start, in search of the husband she still unrelentingly loves, Johnny (Ronald Zehrefld, who like in Barbara shares great alchemy with Hoss). The twist is Johnny thinks her dead and does not recognise his restored wife, instead proposing a rather bewildering plan to her…

Like in the best classic film noirs or melodrama, the narrative conceit is often preposterous but we go with it and it becomes a strength, especially for the conceptual richness of the metaphor of (re)creating one’s identity and memory (The Face of Another, Abe-Teshigahara’s exploration of identity in post-war Japan, could be another interesting point of comparison besides the obvious one of Vertigo). Two immaculate central performances, and meticulously precise filmmaking throughout makes this exquisitely smooth sailing up to and including the pitch-perfect ending (probably the best of the year) where Nelly regains her identity and independence in quietly show-stopping fashion.

 

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3. Taxi

 

 

 

In 2010 after many years of ruffling the Iranian regime’s feathers, Jafar Panahi was handed a 20-year ban on filmmaking and house arrest (since reduced to an embargo on leaving Iran). Yet here is his third film since, once again smuggled out of the country in precarious circumstances and with a cast and crew (other than the obviously recognisable Panahi) that remains unnamed for safety reasons. Taxi is to me the best of those three post-ban films, funnier and more accessible than the slightly self-indulgent ruminations that were Closed Curtain and This is Not A Film.

The premise (a car-bound film with a jolly but directions-dyslexic Panahi himself driving a taxi around Tehran) and the quasi-documentary form (non-actors get into his cab and ‘act’ as real passengers, the whole thing seemingly unscripted) recall the best of Iranian cinema’s riches of the last 25 years, notably Kiarostami’s car-set movies. Some of that cinema naturally includes Panahi’s own work, and those familiar with it will have fun picking up all the references to his films. This is not mere cinephile playfulness though; Taxi deliberately orientates us around a world where film and real life are inextricable. Everyone is making some sort of film of their own, be it Panahi’s niece for a homework piece, a star-struck passenger filming the director/cabbie with his phone, a young film student who asks Panahi for advice, or two newly-weds making a commemorative home video. Taxi is a warm, witty love-letter to the medium, defiantly affirming that the connection between art and life is irrepressible and no ban can change that, while also slyly slipping in social commentary through simple conversations (not unlike his underrated 1997 film The Mirror).

 

2. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existencepigeon-sat-on-a-branch-reflecting-on-existence-2

 

 

 

 

True enough, Roy Andersson’s multi-character comic vignettes, inflected with a Nordic existentialism, are often likened to some kind of hybrid between Tati and Bergman. But nobody makes films quite like him, and his third release in 15 years doesn’t veer too far off the tried-and-tested formula of Songs from the Second Floor and You the Living, which can only be deemed brilliant news. Again, we get a series of mostly unrelated sketches, all static-shot tableaux perfectly exploiting the geometry of his compositions for a deadpan encounter between hilarious and unsettling. Two novelty item salesmen, with the morose pale faces of all Andersson’s characters, recur across several of the scenes and show off their masks and comic fangs while po-facedly affirming, without a hint of irony, that their purpose in life is “to help people have a good time” (are they Roy’s auto-portraits we wonder?).

New ingredients are added too. There’s, uncharacteristically, a few brief flashes of happy moments (a mother in a park, a couple on a beach), there’s the darkest scene Andersson has ever shot (towards the end), and there’s also touches of absurdist surrealism – like 18th century Swedish king Charles XII popping up with his army at a bar in contemporary Gothenburg. I say contemporary Gothenburg, but the setting of this film, as in his previous two, looks and feels like a world of Andersson’s own creation. Only the ubiquitous mobile phones serve as a signpost of the modern age, as well as of technology’s pervasiveness, and, paradoxically, its erosion of human interaction and communication. Every telephone conversation in the film is a rehash of the same lines (“I’m glad to hear you’re doing fine”). Yes, Andersson’s worldview is bleak, and the message we probably knew already – humans are selfish, weak, and cruel, with only momentary glimpses of joy or warmth to counteract this – but who else could tell it in a delivery so hilarious, original, geometrically satisfying, and, by now we can simply say, Roy Andersson-esque? It’s another masterpiece, and gives You the Living a challenger for best of the trilogy.

 

1. The Assassin

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Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s long-touted and curiosity-whetting plan to make a wuxia picture showed us he is not beyond the pleasures of a well-known genre and its traditions, transporting us to one of Chinese culture’s golden ages, 8th Century Tang-dynasty. He offers up action scenes with the briskest editing of his career, and a revenge story involving a female assassin sent to eliminate a regional warlord, whose ambitions are causing friction with the central Imperial powers. But whereas the average genre flick is a minor mutation of a well-trodden formula, Hou rarefies the wuxia rules and stamps his imprint upon them. The fights remain few and far between and mostly unresolved, the takes still long, the shots still from mostly afar, no spoon-fed plot explanations, and Hou’s primary concerns seem philosophical (Shu Qi’s assassin faces a moral dilemma, conflicted between duty and desire, which sees her story arc take spiritual overtones) and historical (Hou is fascinated by the idea of recreating a vision of the distant past).

This past however is, as Hou well knows, unknowable and ungraspable, and this mystery is reflected throughout the film’s aesthetic. Mark Lee Ping-bin, Hou’s regular DP for 30 years now, dazzles with one of the most beautiful looking films you’re ever likely to behold, with an exquisite colour palette, but he also shoots through a hazy, ephemeral combination of smoke, flickering flames, and silk curtains, maintaining an air of veiled opacity. Also reinforcing this atmosphere are Shu Qi’s hitwoman herself, often appearing out of nowhere, or observing her potential victims perched in total stealth (a sly metaphor for Hou’s own proclivity for observing from a distance in his films?), and the work of Lim Giong (himself formerly a regular actor for Hou in the ’90s) on the score and sound design, be it in his subtle birdsong-infused soundscapes or the pulsating percussion of the music. This is a film to beguile your eyes and ears, and then watch again to better take in and enjoy its generic and narrative subtleties.

 

 

Honourable mentions: Carol; Whiplash; El Club; Love is Strange; Blackhat; Mommy; Inside Out; The Chinese Mayor; The Duke of Burgundy. All very good films in their own right which I didn’t find space for. 2015 was a pretty good year all things said and done.


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