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.

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.