Thursday, November 12, 2015


Ah, the enigma that is Hou Hsiao-Hsien's latest film, “The Assassin”. It is a critical darling, it won the Best Director Prize at Cannes this year and it was the hot ticket film at MIFF, selling out four total sessions (an extra session was added due to demand) and yet out of all the films I saw at MIFF this year, it was “The Assassin” that most people seemed to be most unhappy or thoroughly disappointed with. Three months on, I'm finding that the majority of people I talk to who have seen it, dislike it and yet its critical reception is so high. It is obvious though that those people who do like the film are passionate enough to champion it loudly and, not to pre-empt my whole review, I am one of those people.

The main plot of “The Assassin” is as basic as it gets; set during the Tang Dynasty a female assassin named Yinniang returns to her home town of Weibo on her mission to assassinate her former lover, Tian Ji'an, who also happens to be a high ranking politician. Once destined to be bound together in holy matrimony, can Yinniang actually fulfil her mission and instead be Tian Ji'an's executioner?

Expectations are a funny thing, because they have the ability to make or break a film, at least on an initial viewing. Most times I would recommend going into a film knowing as little as possible because it is then exciting finding the film for what it really is as it is unfolding before your very eyes. However in some cases I believe you need to understand just what you are about to walk into if you want to get anything out of that said film, and I believe that “The Assassin” is one such film. The two biggest complaints I heard about the film were that it was as boring as bat-shit because nothing happened, and that for a martial arts film, the fights were non-existent. To be fair, the film has been marketed as a martial arts film, and by looking at the US trailer, you would assume that the fights would be frequent and of a certain quality. However what needs to be taken into account is the director of the film and the kinds of films that he normally makes. Hou is someone who makes incredibly slow paced films, focusing heavily on tiny details and the truth of any given situation. He is not a director prone to excess, and yet at all times his films are stunningly beautiful. So when it was announced that he was going to be making a martial arts film, a few eyebrows were raised. Nothing in his films past indicated that his style would suit such a film, so going into “The Assassin” expecting something like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was always going to be a bad idea, because Hou was never going to deliver a film of that vein. The funny thing is, what he did deliver is almost exactly what you would expect from a Hou Hsiao-Hsien martial arts film if you were familiar with his previous work.

Like all of Hou's previous films, “The Assassin” is very deliberately paced to the point that most people may find it glacially slow. Personally I found this pace mesmerising, as I became totally engulfed into this world, fascinated by every tiny detail on screen. Things such as the meticulous process of preparing a bath, or a dance between husband and wife, or the beauty of a butterfly flying casually near a child; they all seemed to hold as much importance as the political dealings within the film, thus creating a fully formed world. Whilst the main plot of the film appears to be incredibly simple, it is the way the story is told that makes it so special and with how much emotion is invested into it. The reason why Yinniang is sent on her mission is because she failed at her previous job when she couldn't bring herself to assassinate her target in the presence of his young son. She is told by her mentor (the nun that brought her up and trained her) that although her skills are matchless, she is controlled by her heart too much, something that is considered a detriment in the industry she finds herself in. She needs to be as cold as they come and what better way to achieve this than by executing an ex-lover. As the story progresses, we find out that there are other reasons why the nun wants Tian Ji'an killed, but that is all that Yinniang knows. So she is an assassin with all the tools and skill to be the best in the business, but does she have the temperament to do it, and if she decides to turn her back on her adopted profession, she knows that she will be turning her back on the one person who took care of her when she needed it most and when no one else would. As you can see, there is a lot more to Yinniang's journey than just trying to kill a man.

As well as Yinniang's mission, there is also a whole lot of political dealings and going-ons behind the scenes and this is the one part of the film that really frustrates. For some reason Hou has really pared back the detail of these scenes to the point that it becomes extremely hard to work out exactly who all the main players are, and where their allegiances lie. I have watched this film twice now and still I find these scenes confusing. I am not a person that needs to be told every little detail to enjoy a film, I have no issue in having to work a little to enjoy a film, but I do not understand why Hou thought it necessary not to make these scenes clearer. Even the film's screenwriter has expressed in interviews recently that he felt Hou took too much out of this part of the film. One key character in the film is never explained who her identity really is, and that is the other assassin wearing the gold mask who Yinniang battles towards the end of the film. What is so frustrating though is that Hou has explained just who she is in interviews promoting the film, which is that she is actually Tian Ji'an's wife, who is also a secretly trained assassin but one who only dons this persona when her family is threatened. I cannot understand how anyone could think leaving this information out would make the film better. If all these tiny things were clarified a little more, we are talking a near perfect film.

Anyway, enough with the negatives, lets talk about Shu Qi and Chang Chen who play Yinniang and Tian Ji'an respectively. I must admit that I am still a little bemused by the fact that Shu Qi is something of a muse to Hou Hsaio-Hsien. While she is no doubt a gorgeous woman, I never thought her much of an actress back in the nineties when she was making all those Hong Kong films, especially when she started out with those soft core sex films. This is their fourth collaboration though, and he always gets the best out of her and she excels in playing the title role here. She has a quiet presence in the film, (in fact I doubt she has more than ten lines of dialogue in the entire film) a stillness to her, she only moves when she needs to, and no gesture is ever wasted. You can also feel an inherent sadness within her, and I believe she does not smile the entire film. You know this is a person who is not happy with what she is doing in life, no matter how good she is at doing it. She is also returning to a world and a life that should have been hers, that had once been promised to her, and you can feel she is slightly begrudged by how her life has turned out. Also as a non-martial artist Shu Qi handles herself with aplomb in these scenes. She is definitely believable that is for sure. Chang Chen on the other hand displays a certain arrogance that comes with the lifestyle that Tian Ji'an leads and yet that arrogance proves unfounded when in battle with Yinniang as he is no match for his former lover. No doubt this is due to the fact that he is so used to people doing everything for him. He is a character though that is hard to care for because he is one who is willing to do anything for himself without thinking of the consequences. Being a martial artist, Chen has no issues in the scenes that require him to fight.

Speaking of the martial arts scenes, they are as sparse as you might expect they would be in Hou Hsiao-Hsien film. He is after realism in these scenes, so no move is superfluous here just because it looks good. There is a point to each move which is either to defend or attack in the most efficient manner possible. It is a kill or be killed world, so there is no room for looking cool. Because of this the fight scenes last literally just a few seconds, but they are all beautifully filmed, choreographed and performed. There is a smattering of wire-work but you will not see any of the characters “flying” like those in other films of this nature.

Finally I need to talk about the look of “The Assassin” which is, unsurprisingly, the star of the whole movie. Hou chose to shoot the film in the 1:33 Academy ratio (on 35mm no less), somewhat against the norm of a martial arts flick which are usually shot much wider, but it is a decision that pays off in spades. It creates an intimacy and a sensuality that would be harder to achieve via the wider frame. Hou works once again with his regular director of photography, Mark Lee Ping-Bin, and the two come up with some inventive ways to tell this intimate story. I loved the scene shot through the billowing curtains, which alternated between obstructing and exposing exactly what we were seeing (through the point of view of Yinniang). I also thought that the use of colour here was especially well done. Strangely, though, the initial scene is presented in black and white and while no doubt beautiful to look at, I am dubious to the fact that this decision added anything of importance to this scene. If anyone is in any doubt as to how stunningly gorgeous this film looks, they only need to watch the trailer to get a taste of its beauty.

Overall, “The Assassin” is a beautifully quiet martial arts film. Granted, this wont be a film for everyone, but I loved it. I will admit that I was left frustrated by the decision not to make the political dealings and double dealings more clearer by explaining exactly just who everyone was and who their allegiances were to, but this is the only fault I have with this stunning film. Be warned that if you are going into this film expecting fight scenes galore, you will be left disappointed, but if you go in with an open mind and willing to accept the richer drama on show here, you will be greatly rewarded.

4 Stars.


Wednesday, November 11, 2015

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (Panna a netvor)

One of the great joys about cinema and being obsessed with it, is when you come across a director whose work you have previously been unaware of and then connecting with their work and finding hidden gems. Such is the case with Czechoslovakian director Juraj Herz, who until about a month and a half ago, I didn't even know existed. Whilst doing some research on great and unknown foreign horror movies, Herz's name seemed to pop up regularly and this led me to look closer at the man's filmography. I was stunned when I came across the fact that he had made a version of the “Beauty and the Beast” fairytale and that it was highly regarded; stunned by the fact that I had never heard of it before. Personally I am a massive fan of Jean Cocteau's rendition of the same story, “La Belle et la Bete”, due to its sumptuous beauty and poetic nature, and always thought this was the definitive version of the story, but I was more than eager to try and track down Herz's version and give it a spin. Thankfully I was successful in my search, and now have decided to review it, so did it do the impossible and best the Cocteau version, was it a pale imitation or did it create a whole different kind of magic?

This version of the classic tale remains basically the same with a well to do merchant dealer going broke after his shipment of goods gets destroyed, this time whilst the people delivering the cargo attempt to pass through the haunted black woods (home of the Beast). With nothing to his name, the man must sell all his earthly possessions to pay off his debts. Once this is done, all that is left is a portrait of his second wife and mother to his third and youngest daughter, Julie. Since the frame the painting is encased in is of considerable worth, he heads off to sell the portrait in an attempt to gain enough money to start life anew. His two eldest daughter's demand gifts of jewels and diamonds upon his return, whilst the young Julie's only wish is for a single rose. The father heads off and after getting himself lost, ends up travelling through the dreaded black woods. He comes across a run down old castle, and helps himself to both food and drink that are there, as if waiting for his arrival. He falls asleep in front of the fire and when he awakens he finds that the portrait is gone, and in its place is a wealth of jewels, coins and diamonds. The man is ecstatic and takes his leave, but upon exiting, he notices a beautiful white rose. He picks the rose for Julie, when he is then stopped by the angry beast. Enraged at the gall of the man in attempting to steal his rose, after all that he has given him, he tells the man that he is to die. His only chance of survival is if one of his daughter's takes his place willingly. The man understands his doom and accepts it, but asks the beast for a couple of days grace to set his family up before he returns. The beast agrees. When the father gets home, he relates his story to his daughters, but it is only Julie that hears his words and without hesitating she takes off into the woods to take her father's place and to be this mysterious beast's prisoner.

This is an amazing movie and I thoroughly loved every second of it. Whilst I do not think it is better than the Cocteau version, I believe it is no less a stunning picture for it. In fact the two pictures are quite different with Herz's version being a much darker and Gothic affair that it borders much closer to a horror film. Any one who knows me, knows that two things I absolutely love are fairy tales (the darker the better), and horror films and I believe that cross over of each into the other is always ripe because they both seem so closely related. As I have said, this version of “Beauty and the Beast” is a much more terrifying version but no less magical or beautiful.

Juraj Herz has added a lot of little touches to the story to make it his own, most notably in regards to the beast himself and his abode. The single greatest moment in the film is when we see the beast for the first time. In all previous versions of this story that I have watched, the appearance of the beast is more akin to that of a cat or bear, or a combination of the two. Here however, the beast is a giant bird like creature. My mouth just dropped agape at this revelation and originality of his design and it just felt so right. It made so much sense that the beast could look like this in this world; with his large head and face full of beak, not to mention his sharp taloned hands that look ready to rip anything to shreds if so he desires. This beast is a terrifying incarnation and not the sad, lonely cursed figure he comes across in some versions (even though he is that here too). Another addition to the beast here is the fact that he is constantly fighting within himself to embrace his darker animal nature and to kill Julie. The voices in his head all tell him that he must do it to survive, but he constantly fights against this in an attempt to have some semblance left of being human and thus have a chance at redemption. Personally I love this added bit to the story because it makes the beast that much scarier knowing he is slightly insane too. What is interesting too is that the longer Julie stays with him, the more she changes him and makes him more human, both figuratively and literally (as you can see from the photo above, Julie changes the beasts terrifying claws into human hands when she touches them one night). The dark side of the beast finds this a threat and is constantly trying to show him how weak he has become the more human he has become.

The castle that the beast lives in is also treated quite different here in that in this version it is more of a run down old ruin, and yet there is still a beauty to it, and it is full of such magic. Whilst Julie believes that this magic starts the fires and sets the tables with food when needed, what she cannot see is that the beast has a number of hidden “Gollum” like minions who perform these tasks from the shadows. It is quite the image witnessing a chandelier descending with one of these dark servants aboard it lighting the table's candles. One of my favourite scenes in the film is when Julie is dancing and playing with the beast's statues that all exist in a hallway. She takes their hands and admires their faces, all while prancing around them in happiness. That night though, the beast destroys each of the statues removing their hands and face, for he is jealous because he wishes Julie that they were his hands and face that Julie was admiring, but knowing that can never be. When Julie sees the destruction the next morning, she begins to weep and it is such a beautiful moment.

In regards to Julie, the “Beauty” of the film, it is really hard for Herz to make any sort of significant impact on her to make her character his own, so she remains relatively the same as in the other versions; the picture of innocence, beauty personified and with a heart full of love. She is played by Zdena Studenkova, who does an admirable job in the role. Although she is very innocent, she is a strong character and at times quite stubborn. One scene that I liked towards the end was when she first sees the beast's face, and attempts to love him for who he really is, only to retract in horror after staring at his visage too long and realising that he is too frightening to love. I must admit I was not expecting this moment at all, as I thought it would be more cliché and that she would see beyond his looks and love him, but instand she hurts him be rejecting him just as he exposes his vulnerability and shows her who he really is. From a visual standpoint, my favourite moment involving Julie is when she drinks the drugged drink and falls in slow motion, asleep onto her bed. It is a beautiful fairytale moment.

In fact the whole film is a visual feast, with Herz having great fun with both darkness and light, with Julie constantly bathed in soft beautiful light, whilst the beast is hidden within the dark shadows of the castle. From a shot perspective, Herz is very inventive choosing interesting angles always, often shooting through objects to give you the feeling you are participating with the film in a voyeuristic capacity much like the beast himself. His use of colour is especially well done and although it may be a cliché, I loved that Julie was always dressed in white compared to the beast's black. The scenes in the snow with the beast watching from above were particularly well handled.

Overall, I fell in love with Juraj Herz's version of “Beauty and the Beast” and have in fact already watched it twice. It is a thrilling dark take on the classic tale and I loved all of its Gothic styling. Also unlike the recent “Crimson Peak”, this Gothic tale did the right thing by having the castle burn down at the end. The imaginative choice to make the tormented beast a bird like creature was the absolute highlight of the film for me, and just for this choice alone I can not recommend this film enough. Since watching this film, I have been able to track down a few more of Juraj Herz's films; “Morgiana” (not bad, if a little slow) and “Ferat Vampire” (disappointing), although none best his version of “Beauty and the Beast”.......yet. My one hope now is that someone releases this beautiful film on blu-ray in the very near future. Either way, I'm sure that I will continue revisiting this stunning film regularly.

4 stars.

Friday, November 6, 2015


Whilst Terrence Malick's previous film, “To The Wonder”, ultimately left me cold and frustrated due to a lack of access to its main characters, it is still a film that I find myself drawn to to continually revisit. No doubt the stunning visuals have a play in that, and let's face it, as an exercise in pretty pictures, the film is an outright success. My point is that even when they fail to initially engage you, there is something in Malick's cinema that constantly draws you back to it. He is a special filmmaker, no doubt, and a new film from him is always an event for me. So even coming off of the disappointment that was “To The Wonder”, his latest film was still one of my six most anticipated films of 2015.

The story of “Knight of Cups” is surprisingly simplistic at least on a surface level, as we are introduced to a Hollywood screenwriter, named Rick (played by Christian Bale), who is going through an existential crisis of sorts. He is realising just how shallow and hollow his life has become whilst existing in the world of huge parties and absolute gluttony. He appears lost and is attempting to find himself, and we are along for the journey as we watch him interact with both family members and a long list of short-term girlfriends, trying to find the spark that will re-ignite his life.

This was such an unusual film to watch in that even now I'm still not sure exactly how I feel about it. Throughout the film I was constantly going from liking it, to hating it, to just being frustrated by it all, and by the end I'm not sure we really learnt anything about Rick. The film regularly references a story that Rick's father used to tell him as a boy, about a prince who is sent to another world on a journey to find a pearl. Once at his destination, the locals give him a drink from a cup that takes away his memory, making him forget everything; the pearl, his family and even the fact that he is a prince. Even though he doesn't remember, his father continually sends people to try and make him remember just who he is. It is easy to see how this story parallels what Rick is currently going through, because we understand that he came to Hollywood with dreams of becoming something or doing something grand, but once arriving in the town, he has gotten caught up in the vapid lifestyle so common there to the point that he has forgotten why he was there to begin with. Instead of creating, he appears to just be existing (rather than living) as he goes from one pointless party to the next, stringing along a list of lovers on his journey of nothingness. The problem with the film is that even though Rick is the main character of the film, he is barely present throughout the film. He is always physically there but we never get to know him. He barely speaks, although we do hear his thoughts via the typical Terrence Malick voice-overs, and he is forever walking, seemingly with no destination, just looking around at Los Angeles. He comes across as an extra in his own story, almost like a void. I honestly do not understand why Christian Bale would agree to such a role because he does not get to create a character of any sort, let alone even act out emotions. He is a blank slate, with the same clueless expression on his face always.

The girls fare much better in the film, and believe me there are a lot of them. Rick has relationships with no less than six girls throughout the film, all played by different well known actresses, the likes of Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Imogen Poots, Teresa Palmer, Freida Pinto, and Isabel Lucas. At least the girls though get a chance to create some sort of character, despite how brief their appearances in the film may be. The scenes with Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman particularly are very good and are probably the highlights of the film. Blanchett plays Rick's ex-wife Nancy who is also a doctor, but through the interactions with her, we get a small sense of what Rick was before Hollywood changed him. Natalie Portman plays Elizabeth, a married woman Rick is having an affair with until life and a pregnancy intervenes. As good as these scenes were, I was stunned at just how short Portman's appearance was in the film seeing how prominent she is in the film's marketing. However the girl who gets the shortest end of the stick is Isabel Lucas, which is ironic because it appears that it is through her character and settling down and having a family with her that Rick finds himself again. She is given the “Ben Affleck” treatment in that her face rarely appears in frame and I do not think we hear her speak once.

Other reasons why “Knight of Cups” is a frustrating experience all have to do with the Terrence Malick trademarks that usually make his films so great, but here work against the film. I usually love his use of voice-over and believe he is the best person working in cinema today at using this technique but here he appears to lose total focus with it. Not only are we bombarded with Rick's “poetic” thoughts, but also everyone that he comes in contact with, even if it is for one scene only. It is very odd, and it really rubbed me the wrong way because it didn't seem to add anything to the journey at all. Something that is becoming very regular in a Malick film is witnessing fragments of scenes as opposed to watching scenes full, and there are scenes of obvious drama (particularly between Rick, his brother and his father) that Malick mutes the dialogue so again we have no access to the character we are following. We know that both Rick and his brother are angry at their Dad but have no idea why, and what makes it worse is the fact it comes across as the only time these actors get to flex their muscles and yet its treated as unimportant. Another aspect of the film that I just didn't understand was that Malick breaks up the story with a number of title cards, each representing a tarot card (like the Knight of Cups of the title), but what followed, at least in my eyes, didn't seem to represent the card presented to us. It seemed too clever for its own good.

At least being a Terrence Malick film photographed by Emmanuel Lubezki, you know the film is going to look good, right? Well, the answer is a point. It's true that Malick sees the world (through Lubezki's lens) in such a unique way, that in all his films he comes out with some stunningly amazing and original images and that is once again true here. And yes, all the girls look gorgeous. But.......and I can't believe I'm about to say this, but the way the film was shot annoyed the hell out of me. The constantly moving and floating camera drove me insane, and I just wanted it to stop and be still for just a second. Keep still so we can revel in the beauty you have created. I don't know why, but it just bugged me this time around.

One thing that I did like though and think Malick got so right was his disgust at the money and excess thrown around via the Hollywood life, whilst at the same time there is such a problem with homelessness and the poor in LA. Whilst it is always present in the film, he doesn't make it explicit so it becomes preachy. In fact the majority of the film shows just how shallow a place Los Angeles is and the entire lifestyle that exists there with the primary focus on the external rather than internal. Its all surface, with no depth. His camera photographs iconic LA landmarks in such a way, that they look ridiculous and fake. In fact I would go so far to say that LA becomes a large character in the film, but a very flawed one.

All of the above is how I felt whilst and straight after viewing the film, but later on I was curious about the film's title, “Knight of Cups”, and what the tarot card actually represented so I decided to research it some more. In doing so it has brought more understanding to the film, and I have to give Malick more credit than I was initially going to. The card relates to artists and “brings a warning about getting too caught up in fantasy and the romanticism of life” because while it “excites, it lacks any real meaning as you deny your basic commitment to the world and your imagination produces nothing”. This is relevant to the movie because Rick has just been hired to write a new screenplay so perhaps he is going through some sort of detox ridding himself of the unimportant in his life so he can begin creating once again. At least it is another way to read the story. Even more interesting is when the Knight of Cups is reversed, as that signifies a situation that was once incredibly appealing, but ultimately turns out to be something very different so you walk away feeling disappointed. Again this fits well within the story, and these late revelations want me to now revisit the film again, particularly the scene where Rick visits the Tarot card reader to see just how the card of the title is presented to him.

Until then though, I'm going to have to say this was a very frustrating cinema experience. At times it was brilliant, but more often then not it felt like it didn't have much to say. I couldn't shake the feeling that the film was just as hollow as the lifestyle it was condemning. Like the character he is playing, I thought Christian Bale looked totally lost throughout the film as if he had no idea what was going on with his character at any given moment. The usual Malick tropes also seemed to fall flat here, to the point that it appears that the director has now become lazy and comfortable in a style that doesn't adhere to all stories. I would really love for Malick to tackle a narrative based story again (like “The Thin Red Line” or “The New World”) in an attempt to re-charge his batteries, as his style is starting to stale. That said, I'm sure I will re-visit this in the future, this time with the knowledge of what the tarot cards mean, and hopefully this will open the door for me to enjoy “Knight of Cups” so much more.

2.5 Stars.