Ciao Ciao (France-China 2017)

The city girl back home

Ciao Ciao is the latest DVD release from Matchbox Films and a welcome surprise. Matchbox Films pick up a diverse range of films, but not usually a film like this which comes with the support of a Cannes Cinéfondation ‘Atelier’ tag and both a World Cinema Support Fund and CNC credit. Screened at the Berlinale in 2017, Ciao Ciao had a French release earlier this year and it perhaps says something about the current specialised cinema market in the UK that this is a DVD release. The film deserves to be seen on the big screen with cinema sound.

Writer-director Song Chuan is an experienced fiction and documentary filmmaker with a background in TV. His only previous cinema feature credit Huan Huan (2011) was a low-budget film with mainly non-professional actors and from a brief plot description it seems to have shared several elements with this new film.

Ciao Ciao with Li Wei

‘Ciao Ciao’ is a young woman who returns to her village in the hills of Yunnan after working in the great urban sprawl of Guangzhou. The film opens with a very long shot of a mountain valley as a train crosses a viaduct and then a car snakes up the mountain road to bring the city girl home. Liang Xueqin as Ciao Ciao is tall and slim with long black hair and with her designer clothes and handbags she is visually out of place next to the village women, yet somehow her performance and the camerawork still convey that she hasn’t forgotten her village life. Even in her high block heels she steps confidently over rocky tracks. We are not given a specific reason for her return, but her parents are evidently pleased to see her and hope that she will take care of them in their later years. They don’t see that her arrival could disturb the local community.

In the Press Notes (which I struggled to translate from the French) Song Chuan explains that he shot the film in his own home village. He suggests that it is now quite difficult to see traces of the village culture he grew up with in the 1980s and 1990s. Instead, he suggests, village life in the new high-growth economy means that money is everything and social behaviour is more direct – people do not express their true emotions but treat all exchanges as if they were economic transactions. Ciao Ciao’s mother sells corn liquor to supplement her income, buying it wholesale from an illicit distiller. Cia Ciao falls in with the distiller’s son Li Wei (Zhang Yu). He has also returned from time away from the village and spends his time whoring, drinking and gambling. All three activities involve illegal activity but corruption abounds in the village at all levels. A third character (played by Zhou Quan), a young man who runs a shop and claims to have been a hairdresser in Guangzhou, offers Ciao Ciao a different option. I won’t spoil the plot of what develops as an ultimately dark crime melodrama. It’s in some ways quite conventional in terms of narrative events but it’s presented in interesting ways and Song Chuan’s analysis of ‘the Chinese condition’ is clearly set out. This might be one reason why the film has not been released in China as far as I can see. Another might be the sex scenes which are carefully shot to be explicit without showing genitalia meaning that the film has a ’15’ Certificate in the UK. What is clear from these scenes is the offhand and misogynistic way Li Wei behaves towards Ciao Ciao.

. . . and with the hairdresser outside his shop

The aesthetics of the film are striking and they do seem to have been carefully thought through. My first reaction to the opening scenes was that I was looking at landscapes that might have appeared in the 1980s and early 1990s historical films of the so-called ‘Fifth Generation’ directors like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige. This was odd because Ciao Ciao is presented in CinemaScope framings with very careful compositions – and some of these compositions reminded me very much of Sixth Generation directors like Jia Zhang-ke. His Unknown Pleasures (Ren xiao yao, China-Japan-France 2002) would make an interesting comparison. The difference is that Jia’s films tend to focus on the industrial cities of his own home region in Shanxi province in Northern China. One festival reviewer points out that the early framings are in long shot and gradually they become more focused on medium shots and MCUs as we get closer to the character’s real emotions. This could be the case, though the final scenes return to long shots.

I enjoyed the film and I was grateful to be able to see it. The DVD is available from November 26th and it’s a very welcome release for independent Chinese cinema.

Cloud-Capped Star (Meghe Dhaka Tara, India (Bengal) 1960)

The classic composition connecting sister, brother, river and railway in Cloud-Capped Star

Cloud-Capped Star is the first film in Bengali director Ritwik Ghatak’s trilogy about the partition of Bengal in 1947 and its aftermath. It could be argued that all of Ghatak’s features between 1952 and 1977, when his last work was released posthumously, were concerned with the partition, but it is the trilogy that has been most widely seen outside India. E-Flat (Komal Gandhar, 1961) and Subarnarekha (1962, but released 1965) are the other two films in the trilogy. Cloud-Capped Star and E-Flat were shown at HOME in Manchester as part of an Indian Partition Weekend in June. DCPs have been struck by the National Film Archive of India. Cloud-Capped Star is also available as a DVD from the British Film Institute.

The narrative structure of Cloud-Capped Star is seemingly straightforward. We meet a family from East Bengal living in a refugee ‘colony’ on the outskirts of Calcutta in the 1950s. The father is a teacher now struggling to get work and the mother has become something of a harridan in her disillusionment. The eldest son Shankar (Anil Chattopadhyay) is a trained musician but idle and like everyone else in the family seems to exploit his sister Neeta (Supriya Choudhury), the only one with a regular income. Neeta’s younger brother Montu wants to be a footballer and her younger sister Gita seems most intent on getting a boyfriend. The narrative then plays out as the tragedy of Neeta. She will see the prospect of her own marriage disappear, losing the possibility of marrying a man who eventually ends up with Gita. Neeta’s selflessness will bring about her downfall – she catches TB (from lack of proper food and exhaustion from over-work?). Shankar does finally make the effort and moves to Bombay where he becomes a successful singer. But when he returns he is faced with his sister’s decline. Like many Bengali films, Cloud-Capped Star is based on a novel – in this case by Shaktipada Rajguru.

A classic noir melodrama composition. Neeta (Supriya Choudhury) is seen here through a window into her room, behind lattice-work, with her father and brother in the background representing the pressure on her as bread-winner.
N.B. These screen grabs have been cropped because of technical problems.

Cloud-Capped Star is not about plot, it’s about the artistic presentation of loss and the consequences of partition. This is a true melodrama with meanings expressed through music, sound effects, framing, composition and mise en scène. Meanings are also expressed through editing. Although this was Ghatak’s most successful film with the Bengali public it’s not because the film follows mainstream conventions. It’s because of the tragic story and the portrayal of Bengali culture. The film certainly is a melodrama but its ‘excess’ is not about beautiful colours or lush music. In his monochrome film Ghatak uses noirish lighting for interiors contrasted with the brash sunlight outdoors. The editing ‘chops’ the end of scenes and ‘throws’ us into the next. Some of the beautiful music in the film is undercut by strident sound effects.

Neeta at the point when she first realises that she might have TB. There are several low-angle compositions in the film and here the camera angle enhances the expression in her eyes and her gestures.

The geography of the Bengal Delta is confusing for outsiders – especially since the rivers that break away from the main Ganges-Brahmaputra to form the fan-shaped delta are given different names by different communities and are now separated by the boundary between West Bengal and Bangladesh. Ritwik Ghatak grew up along the Padma River, one of the rivers of the delta now in Bangladesh. Kolkata (Calcutta) stands on the eastern bank of the Hooghly River. The refugee ‘colony’ in Cloud-Capped Star is close to the river (presumably the Hooghly?) and it is the river bank where Shankar goes to sing and where Neeta walks beneath the great line of trees at the beginning of the film – and where later she meets Sanat (Niranjan Ray), her would-be fiance. Ghatak’s camera, in the hands of Dinen Gupta, composes the images of Neeta and Shankar carefully. They are first brought together with Neeta in a close-up in the foreground to the right of the frame and looking left. In the middle ground is Shankar (looking to the right) and beyond him, first the river and then on the other bank in the distance is a train travelling from right to left (see the image at the start of this posting).

Neeta and Sanat (Niranjan Ray) meet by the river

Neeta and Sanat by the river with the train in the background

Neeta in this sequence is placed above Sanat in the frame – a signifier of her moral superiority?

Later in the film, when Neeta meets Sanat by the river it is soon after the crisis point when, having lost Sanat to her sister, Neeta has to ask him for money to pay for Mantu’s hospital expenses – and she herself is showing the signs of TB infection. The long shot above follows a meeting on the footpath beneath the trees at which point Ghatak develops a complex soundtrack mix. The melodious music and background natural sounds of cicadas are suddenly undercut by a wailing sound that could be the engine whistle in the background, but which lingers on as a peculiarly alien sound. At this point, Neeta invokes a sense of despair that she hasn’t confronted injustice and Sanat seems to admit he was wrong to give up his studies and take a job when he could be continuing as a political activist. In Cloud-Capped Star, Ghatak presents the decline of Neeta’s family as a metaphor for the decline of Bengali culture post Partition. Is it important that the locomotive pulling the train in the background is travelling ‘tender first’ – effectively ‘backwards’?

My perhaps rather simplistic reading has Neeta, the most active member of the family who sacrifices her opportunities to use her artistic talents in order to put food on the table for her family, eventually being sacrificed herself. Neeta represents the potential for a new Bengali society that cannot flourish after Partition. Ghatak’s emotional but also analytical storytelling drenches events with music, sound effects and references to poetry scattered through the dialogues. His camera creates complex framings of equally complex staging of actions. The film for me is literally ‘shocking’ in its excess and its cutting – ‘shocking’ in two senses, firstly in its harshness and abruptness and secondly in its disavowal of the conventions we have all too easily internalised from mainstream cinema. The French film theorist Raymond Bellour has produced a detailed, illustrated reading of the whole film that can be found here. As Bellour, quoting Serge Dany, avers, it is indeed one of the greatest of all melodramas. The title may refer to a line from Shakespeare – The Tempest. It may equally refer to the mountains visible from the sanatorium near Darjeeling where TB takes Neeta.

I’ve watched Cloud-Capped Star two or three times and still I haven’t seen everything it has to offer or understood all its meanings. I’m also completely at a loss (because of my lack of musical knowledge) to fully get to grips with Ghatak’s use of music in this film (which includes a song using Rabindranath Tagore’s poetry, I think). He was undoubtedly a great filmmaker, not properly appreciated during his relatively short career but influential through his teaching at FTII in Pune in the mid 1960s and globally through his writing on cinema and archive screenings of his films for various filmmakers ever since. Here’s one of the songs in the film.It comes during a sequence in which Neeta comes home and confirms that Montu has left college and has taken a factory job. He is too ashamed to tell his parents and Neeta here offers his first wage to contribute to the household. Her mother is unreasonably angry with Neeta. Both Neeta and Montu are going to suffer. At the start of the clip, Shankar gets a razor blade for a shave and is shamed by the shopkeeper who tells him it is disgraceful that she has to support the whole family. He thinks of her as being like Sinbad the Sailor – carrying the Old Man of the Sea (i.e. her family) on her back. Screenings of Cloud-Capped Star are possible as part of the Independent Cinema Office’s India on Film Tour celebrating 70 Years of Independence in August. Look out for screenings around the UK.

The Commune (Kollektivet, Denmark-Sweden-Netherlands 2016)

Mealtimes come to represent the communal idea in the household.

Mealtimes come to represent the communal idea in the household.

I’m glad I finally got to see this at a public screening (thanks to Square Chapel, Halifax). The Commune is partly a nostalgia trip for those of us who lived through the 1970s – though I was younger than the main characters, I can still recognise the world depicted here (meant to be 1975). Co-writer/director Thomas Vinterberg has his own memories of life in a commune as a small child but his writing partner Tobias Lindholm was not born until 1977. How then did they do in creative terms?

I’m not sure how Danish communes compare with their Anglo-American counterparts but the commune in this film strikes me as a little unusual since it is based in a large suburban house in the suburbs of a coastal town. The house has been left to a couple in their forties with a 14 year-old daughter. Erik, the architecture lecturer (Ulrich Thomsen) wants to sell the house, but his wife TV newscaster Anna (Trine Dyrholm) thinks their family life needs a change and she urges Erik to agree to invite friends to join them in a communal household. My sense of communes tend to be of smallholdings and rural communities or urban squats. This one seems rather bourgeois. Erik and Trine seem too ‘established’ to be in a commune – but they are joined by a younger couple with a child and some singles. The narrative then finally takes off when Erik, still confused by his role in the new set-up, falls for one of his students, 24 year-old Emma.

The narrative promises an exploration of communal life with some great scenes by the sea with everyone together, but then it becomes the story of a marriage and a family and the commune becomes simply the difficult context in which the marriage founders. Having said that, I think the representation of the commune is fair. Quite a few reviewers seem to have assumed that a commune must be about ‘free love’ and that everyone would be swapping partners. That doesn’t happen, but for me it was the other absence that was telling. Reviewers refer to this group of ‘leftists’, but actually there is very little discussion of politics as such and little sense of political activity. I tend to agree with something else that I read, that this script might have been better developed into a TV drama series (or, at the least, into a longer film). Perhaps then some of the stories about the other characters might have been developed further.

I did enjoy watching the film. Vinterberg and Lindholm are too experienced and professional to fail to make a film like this watchable and Thomsen and Dyrholm are very good. Trine Dyrholm in particular makes a viewing experience worthwhile. She always gives everything she’s got. It’s good to see the 1970s too. I liked the decade and its political struggles. I guess we smoked too much, but the clothes were comfortable.

Sweet Bean (An, Japan-France-Germany 2015)

The three principal characters: (from left) Wakana (Uchida Kyara), Tukue (Kiki Kirin) and Setaro (Nagase Matososhi)

The three principal characters: (from left) Wakana (Uchida Kyara), Tokue (Kirin Kiki) and Setaro (Nagase Matososhi)

For reasons I don’t fully understand, the Japanese director Naomi Kawase divides film critics and audiences. A regular presence at Cannes, her films have until recently been seen only at festivals in much of the English-speaking world. It wasn’t until Still the Water from 2014 that she achieved a UK release. Despite all her international festival prizes (or perhaps because of them?), Kawase’s films often attract descriptions such as ‘pretentiousness’ and ‘lacking in narrative drive’. Critics also seem to be put off by her interests in ecology and spiritual connections (which with my limited knowledge I see as traditionally Japanese). Some critics have also put her alongside Terrence Malick in respect of these traits. Her new film has attracted some of the same comments and at 113 minutes its telling of a simple story does suggest a slow pace. However, it didn’t feel slow to my viewing companion and me. We loved the film and both shed some tears – it has also been deemed ‘sentimental’ by detractors, but many in the general audience for the film will like it very much.

The film begins with the morning ritual of a solitary man in his late 40s who is preparing to open his small shop selling dorayaki – sweet red bean paste (the an of the title) sandwiched between simple sweet pancakes. His loyal customers are mainly local schoolgirls but this morning Tokue, a woman in her 70s, drops by enquiring after the part-time job he has advertised. The man (whose name is Sentarô, but who is most of the time simply ‘Boss’) attempts the classic ‘put-off’ strategy to avoid offending Tokue, telling her there is heavy lifting, long hours, low pay etc. She accepts a sample dorayaki and reluctantly leaves only to return the next day with a sample of her own home-made bean paste which she has been making for fifty years. He eventually tastes it and discovers that it is delicious and far superior to the factory-made stuff he buys in. From here on the storyline will be familiar up until the point when we begin to find out more about the three main characters. The backstories are perhaps rather unexpected and though the film’s resolution is fairly conventional, the second half of the film does deliver some insights into Japanese culture as well as exploring more universal concerns.

From the cover of the novel 'Les délices de Tokyo'

From the cover of the novel ‘Les délices de Tokyo’

This is the first time Naomi Kawase has adapted a novel, I think. Many Japanese films are literary adaptations and Durian Sukegawa’s novel was published in France under the title of Les délices de Tokyo (also the film title in France). As with many film festival regulars, Naomi Kawase finds her major overseas support in France and An, like Still the Water is a French co-production. The novel seems to fit Kawase’s overall approach and her interest in the moon and trees seems perfectly in tune with the main story. The film is located in a Tokyo district with enough spare ground for a plantation of cherry trees and the narrative opens (and closes) with a display of cherry blossom. As many reviewers have noted the cherry blossom signifies both the passage of time (a wonderful shot when the roads are covered in blossom fall) and also something about the importance of seasons and the true bond between humans and the natural world. My favourite line in the film was a reference to a brand of sea salt, “dried under the moon on a southern island”.

Tokue makes dorayaki

Tokue makes dorayaki

The cherry blossom reminded me of the German film Kirschblüten (Cherry Blossom, Germany/France 2008) which shares some of the same elements – and received a similar mixed critical response. Like Kirschblüten, Sweet Bean is a film about (broken) family relationships. The third main character is a schoolgirl, Wakana who lives with her mother in a nearby apartment. Wakana is separated from the other girls at school who are cramming for entrance exams for college/university as her mother wants her to leave to earn money. The dorayaki shop is a refuge for her and eventually she will become the initially unwitting agent of the changes in the narrative. As the back stories emerge, we also realise that Tokue and Sentarô are in some ways in a surrogate mother-son relationship. The performances of all three central characters are excellent and the actors Kiki Kirin (Tokue) and Uchida Kyara (Wakana) are actually grandmother and grand-daughter. I was disappointed after the screening to discover that I ought to have recognised both of them because of the films of Kore-eda Hirokazu and that reference seems particularly apt as Sweet Bean would be likely to appeal to the (growing) audiences entranced by Kore-eda’s recent films including Our Little Sister (Japan 2015). Nagase Matososhi) who plays Sentarô is another very experienced Japanese actor and together the trio convey the precise mood that Kawase seeks to create.

Sentaro and Wakana

Sentaro and Wakana

I won’t spoil the second half of the narrative by explaining the social issue involved. It was a surprise to me – but then aspects of Japanese society are often surprising. I’ve seen Sweet Bean dismissed partly because it is seen as an example of ‘food porn’. This strikes me as a particularly crass comment. My experience is that Japan (like several other non-Anglo cultures) has preserved an interest in traditional food culture (as well as embracing a bewildering array of convenience foods) and that these are appreciated by the majority of the population. Japanese culture is also strong in terms of presentation, so there is a desire to make even inexpensive foods attractive. In Sweet Bean we have both alcohol in plastic from a vending machine and sweet cakes dispensed from a traditional shop space – the old and the new together. I seem to remember that there is a big emphasis on food as part of family and friendship culture in Kore-eda’s films as well. If critics don’t like Sweet Bean, I suspect that their take on food is not very reliable either.

Mon Roi (France 2015)

Tony (Emanuelle Bercot) and Georgio (Vincent Cassel)

Tony (Emanuelle Bercot) and Georgio (Vincent Cassel)

StudioCanal has a habit of what strikes me as ‘dumping’ French titles on the UK market. They open in a handful of cinemas with little promotion and then go straight to DVD or online. These are sometimes titles from interesting directors or they have been hits in France but are presumably not expected to do well in the UK (e.g. La famille Bélier last year). Mon Roi is a film by actor-writer Maïwenn. Her previous film, Polisse (France 2011), won the Jury Prize at Cannes and was widely nominated for awards. It too had a relatively limited release in the UK, despite significant success in France. I was tempted to see Mon Roi at HOME in Manchester, partly because Peter Bradshaw’s Guardian review gave the film ‘One Star’ and described it as “an unendurable confection of complacent and self-admiring nonsense: shallow, narcissistic, histrionic and fake”. I’ve been agreeing with Bradshaw too often recently and this looked like an opportunity to end that run.

The ‘Roi’ in question is Georgio (Vincent Cassel) who tells his new lover Tony – Marie-Antoinette – that he is not a ‘jerk’ but ‘the King of Jerks’. The film begins in a familiar way with an accident in which Tony has a spectacular skiing accident (offscreen). We guess from various clues that the accident was at least partly her own fault, through inattention or deliberate foolhardiness. As a result of a serious injury she must spend several weeks/months at a rather nice rehabilitation centre by the sea. This gives her time to think back over the previous 10 years and her volatile relationship with Georgio. In flashback we see how they met and how the relationship developed.

Tony at at the rehab centre.

Tony at at the rehab centre.

I have to admit that there was a moment in the first half of the film when I wondered whether I could cope with watching the affair develop and then unravel. But later on I began to get more interested and overall I was pleasantly surprised. I don’t use ‘Five Star’ ratings but if I did this would be at least a Two Star and possibly a Three Star film. It certainly seems to provoke Love/Hate reactions with critics and audiences, but overall seems to score positively. Part of the interest is in the casting. Vincent Cassel plays close to his usual persona but is capable of both ramping it up and toning it down – and the latter can be quite chilling. Tony is played by Emmanuelle Bercot who I barely know of at all. Bercot is also an actor-director and she took on this challenge in the midst of directing her own films. She has the difficult task of ageing 10 years and at first I struggled to recognise the ‘younger’ woman as the same actor I saw in the rehab centre. She achieves this both through a change in her hairstyle, but also something about her eyes which I couldn’t quite figure out. Cassel has to age as well, but his features are both so well-known and so distinctive that I had no problems with his character. As I’ve often noted, films directed by women tend to have a more frank attitude towards representing sex on screen. There is certainly a lot of both Bercot and Cassel exposed on screen. They didn’t seem to have body doubles and for a pair of actors born in the late 1960s they both look in very good condition. I certainly didn’t have problems with the depiction of their sexual relationship.

Tony is a lawyer giving a public lecture watched by Georgio at the start of their relationship.

Tony is a lawyer giving a public lecture watched by Georgio at the start of their relationship.

Georgio is certainly a jerk – an arse I would call him. Tony is an independent woman, a high-flying criminal lawyer who falls deeply in love and agrees to marry and then have Georgio’s baby, both actions that will later rebound upon her. Her younger brother and sister-in-law see through Georgio, but that doesn’t mean Tony is a fool. The rows between Tony and Georgio are fierce – Bradshaw’s ‘histrionic’ perhaps – but they didn’t feel fake. I know men with some of Georgio’s traits and they seemed real to me. The final scene is in its own way chilling and Tony simply looked stunned. Bradshaw dismissed the flashback structure and all the rehab scenes but I enjoyed these. The centre seems to cater for young men with sports injuries and I thought the play with social class, gender and racial identity between Tony and the ‘lads’ was interesting.

Mon Roi feels very ‘French’. That’s perhaps a facile statement, but the film has a quality I can’t describe and it seems to go with a certain sense of humour, a perception of what is ‘cool’ and a willingness to explore the extremes of relationships. I liked all the performances and I’m struck again by just how many female filmmakers in France can get films made and into distribution compared with their British sisters. It’s a shame this hasn’t had a wider release and more discussion about the characters. Emanuelle Bercot tied with Rooney Mara (for Carol) as Best Actress at Cannes for her performance as Tony. I’m not sure I agree with that but she is certainly very good.

Assassin (Taiwan/HK/China 2015)

Shu Qin is the assassin Nie Yinniang

Shu Qi is the assassin Nie Yinniang, who spends time observing from vantage points

Assassin is the kind of film that you don’t expect to understand after a single screening. As I left the cinema an audience member spoke to an usher who asked him what he thought of the film. “Well, it was very beautiful”, he said, “I didn’t understand it all, but that’s OK because I enjoyed the experience”. I feel much the same, except I thought I understood quite a bit of it until I spoke to my viewing companion and then started to read the reviewers who did understand it and who had actually discussed it with director Hou Hsiao-hsien (such as Tony Rayns in Sight and Sound February 2016). As I read more about it, the film made more sense but also revealed some of the aspects that I’d either missed altogether or seen but failed to make sense of. I do hope to watch the film again, although I’m not sure where. Assassin is not playing in many cinemas and I do worry about how StudioCanal are organising its distribution. In the meantime there are aspects of the film I’d like to discuss and I’m conscious that there is almost a ‘meta-text’ being constructed in the various discourses about the film both in print and on the internet.

The aunt who trains Yinniang as an assassin

The aunt who trains Yinniang as an assassin

The story of Assassin involves a young girl Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi) betrothed at 10 years-old to her cousin Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen) in Weibo, a province on the Northern edge of the empire. When a change in family policy prevents the marriage, the girl is taken to the imperial capital by her aunt who trains her as an assassin to serve the empire. Thirteen years later the young woman ‘fails’ to complete an assassination task and her aunt sends her back to Weibo with orders to kill her cousin, now the governor of the region and becoming a threat to the centre. The main part of the narrative deals with what happens when Yinniang clashes with her cousin.

Tian in his chambers

Tian in his chambers

Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien hadn’t made a feature since Le voyage du ballon rouge, a co-production with France in 2007, when he completed Assassin in 2015 and then won the Director’s prize at Cannes. Before 2007 he made two other films which got distribution in the UK – Three Times (2005) and Café Lumière, (2003) both also co-productions with France and Japan respectively. Before 2003, Hou’s work was quite difficult to see outside East Asia despite his status as one of the most important auteurs in global cinema. (His earlier films in the late 1980s were shown in the UK but have not remained in print.) As a consequence, I suspect some of the reviewers faced with Assassin had little context in which to try to ‘place’ his Cannes prizewinner. To confound critics further, Hou had not previously made a film set in the far distant past, so when he announced his interest in adapting a 9th century tale from the Tang period and exploring the wuxia or martial chivalry genre, a lot of blind alleys seemed to open up.

Tian's wife in her gold mask takes on Yinniang

Tian’s wife in her gold mask takes on Yinniang

In many ways, approaching the film as a wuxia seems to me if not a ‘mistake’, at least a ‘problematic’ enterprise. For most viewers in the West, wuxia is only familiar through the work of a handful of filmmakers, most of whom are auteurs like Hou. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon by Ang Lee and Hero by Zhang Yimou are the two most widely-seen examples of films with strong elements of wuxia and, even so, neither film is fully satisfying to Chinese fans of the genre. Wuxia implies a ‘period setting’ and a conflict which at its centre concerns the opposition of distinct groups or individuals who practice a school of martial arts – i.e follow a specific teacher and a code of honour. The action sequences will take place in what is known as jianghu. This term seems to have several meanings, but all of them suggest a different, alternate fictional world in which there are different ‘rules’ and identities and in which martial actions are directly linked to philosophical and spiritual questions. (A detailed discussion of jianghu and the elements of wuxia is included at the end of my notes on Hero.) Rayns (2016) suggests that the whole world of the Tang dynasty might be seen as jianghu in Hou’s envisioning of the period. What is certainly true is that there is a profound contradiction between Hou’s approach to the staging of the historical period and his use of certain familiar wuxia elements.

A Kurosawa-style composition from the prologue – another long-shot composition

A Kurosawa-style composition from the prologue – another long-shot composition

Wuxia narratives (popular in novel form as well as films –Hou seems to have remembered the novels of his youth rather than the films of the great Taiwanese master King Hu) feature the jianghu which can include super-powers for the warriors. This is famously represented by wire-work choreography that allows actors to fly or to leap up into a tree or on to a roof where swordfights can be staged in spectacular fashion. These warriors have sword skills that enable them to deflect arrows and athleticism to dodge flying blades. They can shoot arrows that split hairs etc. The jianghu also includes the possibility of the supernatural with ghosts and witchcraft. All of these elements are present in Assassin, but they sit alongside an intensely realist presentation of the ‘real world’. Hou’s inspiration for the some of the military scenes and also of the remote villages in Weibo is in the work of Japanese filmmakers and especially Kurosawa Akira’s approach to the production of Seven Samurai (Japan 1954). This approach relies on getting the historical details correct as far as possible:

I wanted to try my hand at the genre [i.e. wuxia] one day – but in the realist vein which suits my temperament. It’s not really my style to have fighters flying through the air or doing pirouettes on the ceiling; that’s not my way, and I couldn’t do it. I prefer to keep my feet on the ground. The fight scenes in The Assassin refer to those generic traditions, but they are certainly not the core of the drama. All else aside, I have to think about my actors. Even with protective padding and other safety precautions, even using wooden swords, such scenes are necessarily violent . . . Actually, the biggest influences on me were Japanese samurai films by Kurosawa and others, where what really matters are the philosophies that go with the strange business of being a samurai and not the action scenes themselves, which are merely a means to an end and basically anecdotal. (Hou quoted in the Assassin Press Notes)

It’s possible to see the problems for some critics (and even more so for some distributors) in this apparent contradiction. Hou seeks out the realist presentation and eschews too much reliance on action – which for many fans is the major attraction of wuxia. Comparisons with Zhang Yimou’s wuxia films are interesting because Zhang too is interested in those ‘philosophies’, but where Zhang stages the narratives in often spectacular settings – large palaces, hundreds of extras etc. – Hou chooses much more intimate settings – small palace chambers, clashes between groups of a dozen or so warriors etc. Hou also selects to use ‘narrow’ screen shapes – Academy 1:1.37 for the prologue (in monochrome) and something slightly wider for the main film (I thought 1:1.66 but IMDB says 1:1.41, which I’ve never come across before) with at least one insert of 1:1.85. Hou also favours long takes featuring a static or a slowly tracking camera. He doesn’t create the sense of movement with the camera or edits – only with the moments of swift movement by the actors within the frame. For much of the time, the principal character Yinniang waits quietly in the shadows, observing the scene before she acts. As a consequence, some audiences find the film ‘boring’ or ‘uninvolving’. Against this, many scenes are breathtakingly beautiful. Hou travelled to remote areas in Inner Mongolia and Hebei to find the silver birch woods, mountains and streams that become the ‘authentic’ settings for his story. Even with my limited knowledge of Chinese visual arts, I recognised the emotional power of the settings. The beauty of the settings is enhanced by Lee Ping-bing’s cinematography. A long-time collaborator with Hou, Lee uses monochrome and colour in startling ways creating a palpable texture for images featuring rain and mists. I was sat quite close to the screen and sometimes there was a high level of grain in the image and at other times the image seemed processed. There were also some very subtle shifts of focus in some of the long shots of figures moving through landscapes. As far as I can tell, Lee shot most of the film in 35mm (except perhaps for the monochrome prologue – on 16mm?). It’s frustrating that I haven’t as yet found any further details online. The interior mise en scène is just as meticulously constructed with costumes and sets designed by Hwarng Wern-Ying. Again the historical detail is more important than any melodrama excess but Yinniang often observes from behind curtains, gauzes etc. which match the mists in the exterior scenes.

A long-shot composition with action in the foreground and misty mountains in the background

A skewed long-shot composition with action in the foreground and misty mountains in the background

Thinking about Assassin in relation to the films of Zhang Yimou, I remembered that Hou had been one of the producers of Zhang’s Raise the Red Lantern (1991), a film that intrigues between the wives/concubines inside a war-lord’s house – itself a carefully constructed setting. Zhang also sought out new and spectacular settings for his second wuxia, The House of Flying Daggers (2004). Like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Flying Daggers is a wuxia romance with female warriors in central roles and this is a description that might fit Assassin. However, it is another Zhang Yimou film that seems most relevant to me. The Curse of the Golden Flower (2006) has a similar structure of brief moments of action set between what is effectively a power struggle within a royal household. It’s much more spectacular than Assassin but the importance of the intrigue and the conflict of family ties and real politik is similar.

Hou’s final trick in making life more difficult for the audience – and adding layers to the intrigue – is to use another story told by a character as a kind of key. This is the story about the bluebird given as a gift. The bird fails to thrive until someone suggests that a mirror is put in the cage and then the bluebird revives, singing and dancing to its own reflection. Here is the clue to both the script and casting decisions. Many of the characters are ‘doubled’ and the casting and costumes/make-up seem to deliberately attempt to confuse the viewer – they certainly did for me. Thus it isn’t easy to distinguish between the wife and the concubine of Tian Ji’an and similarly Tian himself is sometimes easily confused with his officers. My first task when I re-watch the film will be to make sure I know who is doing what to whom.

Assassin9

Yinniang’s mother – seen in flashback as remembered by Yinniang. This sequence is presented in 1.85:1 with the rest of the film in 1.37:1

Whatever my problems following the narrative, I have no doubts that this will be one of the most interesting films I will see this year. And I haven’t even mentioned the music by Lim Giong which also needs more of my attention. I’m sure I saw a reference in the credits to music from ‘Dakar’ (in Senegal?). I must find out more. Trailers can never possibly convey the pacing or complexity of a film like Assassin but you can get to see some of the beauty and some of the features outlined above in this trailer:

Hou Hsaio-hsien is a case study director in Chapter 11 of The Global Film Book.

Crimson Peak (US-Canada 2015)

Tom Hiddleston and Mia Wiakowska

Thomas (Tom Hiddleston) and Edith (Mia Wasikowska), the potential couple at the centre of a gothic romance.

Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak is a companion piece for his early films The Devil’s Backbone (El espinazo del diablo, Spain-Mexico 2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno, Spain-Mexico-US 2006) and the film he helped to produce, El orfanato (The Orphanage 2007). But whereas these films combined the ‘gothic romance’ with a Spanish Civil War story via various rich metaphors, del Toro’s new film is essentially a re-working of a classic gothic romance narrative set in the early Edwardian period. Compared to the earlier films Crimson Peak is even more beautifully conceived and designed but unfortunately does not carry the same powerful political message. It does, however, offer a worthwhile commentary on the gothic romance and the presentation of ‘phantasms’.

The narrative involves an English ‘gentleman’ and his sister, Thomas and Lucille Sharpe (played by Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain), who visit Buffalo NY where Thomas seeks investment funds from the banker Carter Cushing. Thomas wants to build a mechanical extractor for the deposits of red clay on which his family property sits in the wilds of Cumberland. The blood-red clay is valuable for firing high-quality tiles but is also threatening the foundations of the great old house and seeping through the ground like blood. Thomas and Lucille leave America without investment funds but with Cushing’s daughter Edith (Mia Wasikowska) as the new Mrs Sharpe. They return to the great gothic mansion where the rest of the narrative plays out.

Edith begins to explore the gothic house . . .

Edith begins to explore the gothic house . . .

. . . in which there is often somebody watching – here Jessica Chastain.

. . . in which there is often somebody watching – here Jessica Chastain as Lucille.

Once in the UK, Crimson Peak becomes more focused on a three-way power struggle in the classic gothic house with strict colour coding of costumes and fantastic attention to mise en scène, lighting and cinematography. The background to the production suggests that del Toro had been trying to make the film for a long time, but that he hung on until he found backers prepared to let him have the $50 million that he knew would be needed to create the spectacle that he wanted to create. This passion for the project is evident in the number of promotional videos that accompanied the film’s release, including one in which del Toro himself takes us through aspects of set design and the SFX needed to create his ‘phantasms’ – creations that are part digital effect and part traditional effects work (see the clip below).

I went to see Crimson Peak on a large multiplex screen, primarily to immerse myself in the production design and the richness of del Toro’s imagination. I wasn’t sure what kind of narrative to expect and I’m still not sure why I didn’t enjoy it more. Everything about the production is first class, including the three central performances. Del Toro’s ideas are gloriously realised in the set and I enjoyed the presentation of the phantasms. The film was shot in Canada and the one feature that didn’t work for me was the presentation of landscape. The mystery is why del Toro and his co-writer Matthew Robbins chose ‘Cumberland’ as the location for the house – and then presented it as an isolated house on a featureless snow-covered moor, so that it could really have been anywhere. There is a strong sense of landscape in British gothic stories set in the late 19th and into the 20th century. Think of The Hound of the Baskervilles, Hitchcock’s Rebecca or the more recent The Woman in Black. The landscape doesn’t have to be ‘factually correct’ but it should resonate with the story in some way. I seem to remember that del Toro shot in Northern Ireland on the Devil’s Causeway for Hellboy 2, so he has had some experience of the possibilities. Perhaps I’m just complaining because I want to see Cumbrian landscapes – I don’t worry about the Spanish locations in the earlier films, but that’s because they do seem to be part of the overall presentation of the Civil War.

Crimson Peak didn’t find the large audience that might have justified its production spend. I think that’s partly because gothic melodrama/romance is currently out of favour and is only acceptable as part of a package in which the potential horror story is strong enough on its own. By mixing the two in the way it is done here – appealing to two different audiences – del Toro has not really satisfied either. I suspect that the focus on the production design has meant that the script received less attention than it should have done. Thinking back, the ingredients are there for a great melodrama – there are narrative elements about childhood and parenting that might have come from a Wilkie Collins novel – but somehow they don’t cohere.

Perhaps Crimson Peak will become a cult film through theatrical revivals – I’m glad I saw it on a big screen.

Guillermo del Toro introduces one feature of his elaborate studio set:

. . . and here’s another:

Guillermo del Toro’s Spanish-set films are discussed in Chapter 4 of The Global Film Book.