Nie yin niang (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.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Hou Hsiao-Hsien | Writers Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Chu Tien-wen, Hsieh Hai-Meng and Zhong Acheng | Cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin | Starring Shu Qi, Chen Chang, Yun Zhou | Length 105 minutes || Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 26 January 2016

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

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Wednesday 23 April 2014 || My Rating 3 stars good


© Sony Pictures Classics

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 Uwai) 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.


CREDITS || Director/Writer Gareth Evans | Cinematographers Matt Flannery and Dimas Imam Subhono | Starring Iko Uwais | Length 150 minutes

Xiyang Tianshi (So Close, 2002)


FILM REVIEW || Director Corey Yuen | Writer Jeffrey Lau | Cinematographer Kwok-Man Keung (as “Venus Keung”) | Starring Zhao Wei, Karen Mok, Shu Qi | Length 106 minutes | Seen at home (DVD), Sunday 10 November 2013 || My Rating 3 stars good


© Columbia Pictures

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.

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Wu xia (Dragon, 2011)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director Peter Chan | Writer Aubrey Lam | Cinematographer Lai Yiu-fai and Jake Pollock | Starring Donnie Yen, Takeshi Kaneshiro | Length 98 minutes | Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Monday 6 May 2013 || My Rating 2.5 stars likeable


© We Distribution

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).

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