刺客聶隱娘 Cike Nie Yinniang (The Assassin, 2015)

Hou Hsiao-Hsien makes slow films. I’m still fairly certain that the most walk-outs I’ve ever experienced from a film screening was when I went to see his magisterial Flowers of Shanghai (1998) when it screened for the first time at my local film festival (about half the audience left, and that’s a festival crowd). He returns to a Chinese period setting with his latest film (this time it’s the 8th century Tang Dynasty), so I’m not surprised to hear people criticise it for a certain coolness to its narrative exposition. For my own part, the period setting strikes me in the same way as, say, Shakespeare plays do: I’m not always exactly sure the historical importance of each of the characters, but I get the gist of what’s going on. Shu Qi plays the titular figure of Nie Yinniang, who is instructed by the nun who raised her to assassinate a corrupt government minister, Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen), but she finds it difficult to complete the mission when it transpires he is a cousin and former betrothed of hers. These are the broad brush strokes, but Hou fills in the rest with his cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin, using a gorgeous colour palette and elaborate costumes. Yinniang is often filmed through veils and obstructed by trees in outdoor settings, lurking in the background as Tian and his wife (Yun Zhou) hold court. I confess I probably need to see this film again to properly appreciate its artistry, but on a first viewing it certainly doesn’t disappoint. Unless, that is, one goes in hoping for a more action-packed genre-inflected wuxia.

The Assassin film posterCREDITS
Director Hou Hsiao-Hsien 侯孝賢; Writers Hou, Chu T’ien-wen 朱天文, Hsieh Hai-Meng 謝海盟 and Zhong Acheng 鍾阿城; Cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin 李屏賓; Starring Shu Qi 舒淇, Chen Chang 張震, Yun Zhou 周韻; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 26 January 2016.

The Raid 2: Berandal (The Raid 2, 2014)

I’ve not seen the film to which this is a sequel, but I had heard it was very violent. Maybe you’ve heard that said about this sequel. It’s been mentioned quite a bit in reviews, and it’s worth repeating, because this is extremely, incredibly, punishingly, brutally violent. The row of lads sat behind me in the cinema were fighting for breath at times; it’s not for the squeamish. That said, it’s quite fun.

There’s some kind of plot which has our hero Rama (Iko Uwais) infiltrating a criminal organisation to extract vengeance for his brother’s death (which we see in the opening sequence). His target is a renegade criminal, who has allied himself with the son of a local mafia-like don, who is making a power play for his father’s empire by antagonising a Japanese clan. Around the edges of this battle are corrupt police and many, many expendable thugs. It’s the latter who make the most impact — taking their turns being beaten to a pulp in successive martial arts fight sequences — because the intricacies of the story take some time to become clear. Then again, all you really need to know is that Rama is the hero and everyone will submit to the beating he doles out.

There’s filmmaking skill here, though, because you can’t have so much frenetically-paced action fighting without a good sense of how to choreograph and edit such a scene (well, you can try, but it ends up being incoherent, as in all too many recent Hollywood flicks). So there’s fighting, armed combat, and a fair bit of body horror (the film doesn’t shy away from gore), but it stays grounded in the hero’s vigilante revenge quest, as we vicariously imagine ourselves having his skills in exacting punishment for his anger. In amongst all that there are some nice little sequences that have a go at pathos, and which incidentally lift motifs from some of my own favourite films (use of Händel’s Sarabande in one emotional scene recalls Barry Lyndon, while one death communicated via blood spattering across a blade of grass in the dying light of day suggests The Thin Red Line), though this is all quite incidental to the core of the film.

As an action film, it’s a brutally elaborated, if rather elongated, revenge fantasy put together with a fair amount of technical craft. It’s hardly like to win awards from those not already partial to a spot of the old ultra-violence, but it will keep you entertained.

The Raid 2 film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Gareth Evans; Cinematographers Matt Flannery and Dimas Imam Subhono; Starring Iko Uwais; Length 150 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Wednesday 23 April 2014.

夕陽天使 Xiyang Tianshi (So Close, 2002)

I suppose having plot-heavy action films is probably nothing new, but it seemed like something that really started to catch on after the success of 1996’s Mission: Impossible (incidentally, would that film be called a ‘reboot’ nowadays?). The Bourne films gave that kind of set-up a real-world torn-from-the-headlines spin, but in this Hong Kong film of 2002 the filmmakers’ plot maximalism is all in the service of very little more than diverting thrills. It does mean that it can be very difficult to figure just what’s going on, especially when there’s little compulsion to try and understand it. The point I suppose is to just go with it. At least one of the three female leads is going to end up on top, so the question is really just which.

The set-up involves some high-tech cyber-espionage, practised specifically by glamorous sisters Lynn (Shu Qi) and Sue (Zhao Wei). Hot on their heels is preternaturally-gifted detective Kong (Karen Mok), whose dorky assistant may be the only male cast member portrayed positively in the film, though there’s also Lynn’s boyfriend, a presence so forgettably underdramatised as to be non-existent. The point is that everyone else aside from these three is basically just a mark whom each effortlessly manipulates, and that’s just fine by me. It’s never really clear quite what Lynn and Sue are out to gain — if there is an explanation I missed it. You get the feeling that in an American remake the filmmakers would be at pains to show that the two sisters are out to avenge their father or some such, but here it’s largely immaterial.

The key to the film is the hunt by the detective for these two women, and what malign forces that hunt uncovers. It also motivates plenty of thrillingly action-filled fight sequences, using all the techniques which by this point have been mastered within the Hong Kong film industry. There are various kinds of weaponry deployed, wire-assisted balletic leaps and intricate martial choreography, aided by the stylised camerawork and vertiginous locations in high-rise buildings. It can all go past in rather a blur, but there’s panache to the editing, and it’s always clear what’s happening — at least within the fight scenes, if not the rest of the plot.

The acting is strong enough to give life to each of these three characters, and Zhao Wei really comes into her own by the close of the film, as her character moves into a far more active role. It’s not by any means a perfect film and the post-synching in particular is rather distracting at time (I understand it was dubbed from Mandarin into Cantonese for its release). However, it’s difficult to really take against it, daffy and digressive as it is, because it is, primarily, a lot of fun.

So Close film posterCREDITS
Director Corey Yuen 元奎; Writer Jeffrey Lau 劉鎮偉; Cinematographer Kwok-Man Keung 姜國民 [as “Venus Keung”]; Starring Zhao Wei 趙薇, Karen Mok 莫文蔚, Shu Qi 舒淇; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 10 November 2013.

武俠 Wu Xia (Dragon, 2011)

It takes no little confidence to title your movie Wu xia, given this is the name given to an entire genre of martial arts films and literature, often featuring lone swordsmen from a lower social class righting wrongs, the most famous of which for Western audiences is undoubtedly Wo hu cang long (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, 2000). The hero of Dragon, Liu Jinxi (played by Donnie Yen) isn’t initially presented as a swordsman, but he does have a mysterious martial arts past that only slowly comes to light thanks to the investigations of detective Xu Baijiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro).

The film sets its scene very nicely in a small village in the impoverished Yunnan province in 1917, as Liu and his wife sit down for dinner with their two children. It’s a warm domestic gathering that effectively sets up Liu as a loving family man in a humble setting. A subsequent frenzied and very well-choreographed fight scene in which Liu confronts two thieves in the local grocers doesn’t do much to alter this picture of a rural peasant, and if he avoids any serious physical harm this seems to be more to do with the amateurishness of the thieves. It’s at this point that Xu enters to investigate the fight; one of the thieves was a particularly dangerous criminal wanted by the government. As Liu gets the praise of his village, Xu is sceptical that such a simple peasant could have prevailed. We see the fight again as Xu has reconstructed it, and Liu is clearly unveiled as a well-trained martial artist. This soon prompts a line of enquiry into his past that motivates the rest of the film.

In some ways, a well-constructed wuxia isn’t unlike a dance film (I saw All Stars in the cinema on the same day). There are recognisable characters and generic tropes, not to mention kinetic central setpieces, in both genres. Dragon certainly has its share of dramatic fight scenes along the way to Liu’s final punishing confrontation with a figure from his past. They pass in a blur though for me, leaving the strongest aspect of the film being the quiet interstitial scenes showing Liu’s home life as well as his verbal confrontations with Xu, who is trying to discover what has motivated Liu to take up his present life.

Dragon is not in the end a major work, and it may not quite be fitted to encapsulate the entire wuxia genre as its title implies, but it’s a diverting story of dealing with past trauma and finding personal fulfilment and peace, with a bunch of good fights thrown in.

Dragon film posterCREDITS
Director Peter Chan 陳可辛; Writer Aubrey Lam 林愛華; Cinematographers Lai Yiu-fai 黎耀輝 and Jake Pollock; Starring Donnie Yen 甄子丹, Takeshi Kaneshiro 金城武; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Monday 6 May 2013.