The Assassin: the work of an obsessive tinkerer | Cannes Review

23 May 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

At Cannes, goodbye, high heels. Hello, Hou Hsiao-hsien.

CANNES – The latest film Nie Yinniang (The Assassin) by Hou Hsiao-Hsien, the famous director from China’s Taiwan, was screened Thursday in Cannes to compete for Palme d’Or at the ongoing 68th Festival de Cannes.One among the many beautiful shots in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s glacial wuxia – certainly the best-looking film in the Cannes competition – finds two characters having a conversation over a yawning ravine.CANNES, France — “The Assassin,” the thrillingly beautiful martial arts film from the Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-Hsien, traces the adventures – as well as the poses, gestures and silences – of a ninth-century Chinese female warrior.

Amid the 68th Cannes festival hoopla about Mad Max, the new Pixar film Inside Out and flat shoes on the red carpet, the cinephiles have been anxiously awaiting the festival’s second half, and new films by two of contemporary cinema’s master filmmakers, China’s Jia Zhangke and Taiwan’s Hou Hsiao-hsien. In 9th century China, a general’s daughter, Nie Yinniang, is abducted by a nun who initiates her into the martial arts, transforming her into an exceptional assassin charged with eliminating cruel and corrupt local governors. The take lasts about a minute (not particularly lengthy in this context), but between its beginning and its end a mist has swept in and obscured the view. Years before when she was a child, Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi, a favorite of the director’s) had been delivered into the care of a powerful, magical nun-princess, Jiaxin, who instructed her in the deadliest of martial arts. Both directors are associated with the “long shot, long take” style of art-house filmmaking, characterized by careful camera compositions, inventive formal storytelling devices and a patient attention to the rhythms of daily life.

One day, having failed in a task, she is sent back by her mistress to the land of her birth, with orders to kill the man to whom she was promised — a cousin who now leads the largest military region in North China. Jia, 44, is a generation younger than Hou, 68, and something of a disciple, who was highly influenced by seeing his first Hou film when he was in film school and decided to pursue similar projects that were personal, social and historic.

Set at a time when central authority was challenged by rebellious provinces, the film follows a mysterious woman in black (Shu Qi) sent to her home region to carry out an assassination. Dressed in all black, a small curved knife tucked in her top knot, Yinniang is, in pointed contrast to the concubines, both a fearsome screen presence and as elusive as the shadows she slips through. Jia’s own great theme is the psychological cost of China’s economic growth and social change, and his Cannes film Mountains May Depart is one of his most accessible expressions of that sense of loss and alienation.

Hou is known for beautiful, delicate films such as “A Time to Live, a Time to Die” and “The Flowers of Shanghai.” “The Assassin” — an action movie with more stillness than action — is a series of gorgeous tableaux interspersed with tightly controlled bursts of violence. “I’ve seen a lot of kung fu films, and I particularly like Japanese films, films with samurai, because the combats are so realistic,” Hou told reporters at a Cannes press conference Thursday. A slave to the orders of her mistress, Nie Yinniang must choose: sacrifice the man she loves or break forever with the sacred way of the righteous assassins. As with other Hou characters, she scarcely talks, yet her actions, gestures and steady long looks speak eloquent volumes, as does every detail on screen. The story begins in 1999 in Jia’s hometown of Fenyang, with a classic dramatic set-up in the story of two men, one rich and one poor, in love with the same young schoolteacher, Tao (Zhao Tao). Some viewers unfamiliar with the Tang Dynasty period and its literature found the film’s plot hard to follow, but critics hailed Hou’s signature beauty and control.

Hou shows Yinniang in profile as she spies on Tian Ji’an from behind some curtains in his home, an image that’s beautiful in and of itself yet also expresses her wavering resolve to kill him. Variety said that “shot for shot, it’s perhaps the most ravishingly beautiful film Hou has ever made,” and noted that “gore-seekers with short attention spans need not apply.” “The Assassin” cost $15 million, which the director called “a luxury” — though he said he would only be able to fulfil his goal of making a second martial-arts film if the investors got their money back. He said many young Asian directors try to make “Hollywood-style” films, in contrast to Hou’s generation, the Taiwanese New Wave of the 1980s, and earlier innovative cinema movements including the French New Wave and Italian Neorealism. “When you’re creating films, the audience is not there,” Hou said. “If you keep thinking about the audience then it becomes something else, another kind of film. Hou has never been especially well-known in the United States, where foreign language cinema viewership, at least in theaters, has long been in lamentable decline. Hou’s 10th movie to play in this festival, and his first full-length feature since “The Flight of the Red Balloon,” which had its premiere at Cannes in 2007. “The Assassin” was rapturously received at its first press screening, on Wednesday night, and will have its official red-carpet debut Thursday evening.

Nie Yinniang (played with enormous authority by Shu Qi) is off the screen for bafflingly long periods of time and makes rare explicit mention of her inner torment. That afternoon, Hou Hsiao-Hsien (pronounced HO shao shen) spoke — briefly and primarily in Chinese through a translator — about his latest masterwork on a terrace at festival headquarters. “The Assassin” reunites Mr. Now an adult (dressed in black, with a sword hairpin), she is assigned to kill Lord Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen), governor of Weibo, a military stronghold that is at odds with the imperial court in Beijing.

There’s a catch: Yinniang was once betrothed to the Lord, and while her mistress keeps urging pitiless swiftness, Yinniang waits, and we wait with her, until she chooses to strike. From there on, the movie progresses with one ravishing shot after another, breathtaking mountainous landscapes (shot in Inner Mongolia) and fastidiously detailed ninth-century court interiors. Verified email addresses: All users on Independent Media news sites are now required to have a verified email address before being allowed to comment on articles. The court intrigues – a pregnant concubine, a sorcerer who sends out snakelike poisonous smoke, the various alliances and antipathies – are presented with little exposition. Hwarng it was about putting the costumes in “this natural environment, with the natural light.” They worked on colors for the main characters, deciding on black for Yinniang because it was the perfect color “to showcase this woman who hides in the shadows.” Color plays an instrumental role in the movie, which Mr.

Unlike the heroes of other martial-arts films, Yinniang doesn’t waste time dancing in tree tops or running up walls but finds the direct line from blade to throat, fist to heart. Hou also plays with the aspect ratio in “The Assassin,” using the classic square Academy format for an introductory flashback scene of Yinniang swooping down to cut the throat of a man on horseback.

Hou said, and the gorgeous exterior shots were shot in central China and Inner Mongolia, the site of a silver birch forest in which Yinniang has one of her fiercest battles. Hou said that he didn’t rehearse the film, which is fairly astonishing given the precision of the camerawork and how bodies move through his space in it.

Hou explained, he “will shift the image based on what they’re working with.” He doesn’t pressure them to be “so technical” when they’re shooting, and that’s the “way he’s always worked.” A genius of the long take, Mr.

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