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.

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我的少女時代 Wo de Shaonu Shidai (Our Times, 2015)

If like me your experience of Taiwanese cinema is restricted to Hou Hsiao-hsien, then Our Times is going to come as a bit of a shock to the system. Or perhaps it won’t, as it fits pretty neatly into the mould created by US teen comedies like 10 Things I Hate About You (1999). This is not least because of its retro 90s setting, all bright saturated colours and perky kids, though as it happens the lead male actor (Darren Wang as school bad boy Tai Yu) also looks quite a bit like Andrew Keegan’s Joey in that film. The Taiwanese take on teen romance continues also to favour strong roles for its leading women — perhaps thanks to the women who wrote and directed the film. The story follows Vivian Sung’s dorky Lin Zhen Xin (“Lin Truly” as she’s called in the subtitles, no doubt to emphasise a key pun in the modern-day epilogue) through various travails of the heart (with heartthrob Tai Yu and the squeaky clean Ou Yang, played by Dino Lee). Where it differs from its US forebears is that the tone of Our Times strays frequently from comedy into overt (occasionally even tear-jerking) melodrama at several points, and lacks the tight script of the US film. Still, there’s plenty to enjoy in this broadly likeable film, even if many of the cultural references go far over your head — certainly the audience of young, presumably Taiwanese, women at my screening laughed and gasped at plenty of lines that meant nothing to me. There’s also an extended subplot (and obligatory cameo) featuring Hong Kong pop star Andy Lau, so that may or may not mean anything to you, but it hardly makes any difference to either enjoying or understanding the film, which is a candy-coloured delight.

Our Times film posterCREDITS
Director Frankie Chen 陳玉珊; Writer Yung-Ting Tseng 曾詠婷 [as “Sabrina Tseng”]; Cinematographers Kuo-Lung Chen 陳國隆 and Min-Chung Chiang 江敏忠; Starring Vivian Sung 宋芸樺, Darren Wang 王大陸, Dino Lee 李玉璽; Length 134 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Panton Street, London, Tuesday 24 November 2015.

郊遊 Jiao You (Stray Dogs, 2013)

Since premiering at the Venice Film Festival in September 2013, where it won a prize, it’s taken over a year for Tsai Ming-Liang’s Stray Dogs even to get a screening in London (despite there having been two London Film Festivals in the intervening time), and just a one-off in an East London multiplex at that. I suppose this might suggest that potential distributors consider the film may be problematic to sell, and certainly it has all the traits that have marked the ‘slow cinema’ coming out of Taiwan since the 1980s (primarily films by Tsai and his compatriot Hou Hsiao-Hsien). Indeed the film even starts with a static shot of several minutes in length, showing two children sleeping while a woman sits beside them. And yet it’s a marvellous film that despite being slowly-paced and deliberately withholding a lot of information about its characters, exerts a fascinated hold over the audience (well, over me certainly) for its long running time. Even seeing the first half hour twice — the characters speak so seldom that it took the cinema that long to realise it was framed incorrectly, resulting in the subtitles being cropped off — didn’t loosen any of that hold, and in fact seeing the same slowly-paced near-silent sequences twice in a row without getting bored or antsy just made me more confident in the film’s artistry.

Trying to sum up what it’s about is a trickier proposition, not just because of the aforementioned lack of expository dialogue, but because of a somewhat perplexing narrative strategy, which seems to mix up different time periods with one another. If the woman (played by three different actors, as it happens) is the childrens’ mother sitting with them at the start, the next shot seems to skip back to a time when they are just living with their father (Lee Kang-Sheng), while intercutting scenes of the mother working at a supermarket while her kids lurk around. The father is working by a busy road holding signs advertising luxury condominiums in all weather; he lives with his kids in a dry corner of a derelict warehouse building, while shopping centre toilets provide a chance for personal hygiene. These characters are, by all standards, poor, and their living arrangements and alienation from society suggest that they are the ‘stray dogs’ of the title. At some point, the mother finds the father and the children, and the family are united. Quite what has got them to this place, or where they go from here, is sort of what the film is about.

I say “dry corner” above because the film — like all of Tsai’s films — is utterly suffused with dampness, whether it’s the severely (and picturesequely) water-damaged home the family occupy near the film’s end, pools of water on the ground, leaks from above, or driving rain outside. More than many of Tsai’s films, it’s about people adrift and unmoored, and along the way it provides a pretty concise portrait of modern society, specifically a sense of alienation — their difficulty in connecting with one another (and, perhaps, with the audience, not least thanks to the strategy of having three different actors play the ‘mother’ role). One of the most striking (and in many ways, disturbing) scenes, which plays into this, has the daughter ‘adopting’ a cabbage as a surrogate mother, which her father (while drunk, as he is rather often) comes home to find in bed. And several sequences, including at the film’s denouement, show the characters intently staring towards a painted landscape horizon.

It’s bleak, and it’s slow, but it’s almost hallucinatory in its intensity, and to my mind the narrative ellipses and obfuscations just make it all the more compelling. Despite not revealing the specifics of this particularly family unit, in many ways it seems to say something about family and connectedness and about the difficulties of forming those connections, and about all the ways they may go awry. Or perhaps I’m misreading it completely, and it all means something else. Whatever, it’s certainly a film to continue thinking about.

Stray Dogs film posterCREDITS
Director Tsai Ming-kiang 蔡明亮; Writer Song Peng Fei 鹏飞, Tsai and Tung Chen Yu 董成瑜; Cinematographers Liao Pen-Jung 廖本榕, Xin Lu Qing 吕庆鑫 and Shong Woon-Chong 宋文忠; Starring Lee Kang-sheng 李康生; Length 138 minutes.
Seen at Vue Stratford City, London, Tuesday 2 December 2014.