Agape… astonishment… awe… when the lights came up after the first press screening of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin, some of us were still sitting there in silence as ushers cleared the room, staring at the screen and wondering: where did that come from?
“I hear it has problems,” people had been saying of Hou’s first wuxia. “I hear he scrapped everything and that he’s starting from scratch,” they said in 2013 and 2012 and before that. Year after year—seven, to be precise, since The Flight of the Red Balloon—the rumor mill ground away, day and night. Too much pressure on Chinese filmmakers to go martial arts, too many extracurricular duties (Hou was the chairman of the Taipei Film Festival and served on the “Executive Committee” of the Golden Horse Film Festival), too much “brandy and cigars,” as a friend of mine speculated. And I found myself thinking: too much time, with The Grandmaster and Hard to Be a God in my head. It’s so easy to let the film slip away, like the leaves falling from the calendar in a Thirties passing-of-time montage, to lose it amidst all the possible alternate endings and scenes and possibilities that present themselves over too long a span of time.
As it happens, Hou explained at his sparsely attended press conference, most of the time was spent doing the aforementioned jobs and reading and thinking about the Tang Dynasty and the legend from which he drew what became the film’s fairly simple narrative (“Nie Yinniang,” written by Pei Xing in the 9th century). But if it was so simple, why did so many of us walk away exclaiming that we wouldn’t be able to summarize the plot to save our lives? In Hou’s films, our various senses of time—narrative, immersive, subjective—are collapsed into one flow of movement, emotion, color, and light; and what is immediately arresting in the unfolding moment seems to be both happening in the present and reverberating in the memory. Whose memory? Perhaps this or that character’s, or mine or yours. It doesn’t really matter. Hou’s cinema has always been uncanny, and the effect is intensified in The Assassin, made with a refinement and economy that feels almost impossible, particularly in contrast to 90 percent of the rest of the films in Cannes.
Every element of The Assassin harmonizes with every other element, a case in point being the lengthy scene in which Lord Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen) tells his mistress the story of his estrangement from his once beloved cousin Yinniang (Shu Qi), now a trained assassin. As he speaks, Yinniang lingers in the shadows, visible to us but not to the couple and… my description of this scene is already weighted down with too many cumbersome words. A scene? A spell—a matter of breezes, curtains obscuring and revealing, flames flickering, fields of red and gold brightening and darkening, pockets of darkness that become portals to secret worlds, and every gradation of feeling between the characters is felt in the most infinitesimal shifts of tone and volume. On a grander scale, a cut to a new scene is never just a move to a new location, and a landscape (no matter how breathtaking) is never just a landscape, but a variation of a great universal tone. I saw it twice, the plot was easier to understand the second time around, but while the many more viewings to come in my future will certainly make the film more familiar, I fully expect it to become more and more extraordinary.
Mountains May Depart
There were several English-language films in Cannes this year made by filmmakers whose first language is not English. Nothing particularly noteworthy there, but in most cases the decision appears to have been market-driven. By contrast, the final, English-speaking section of Jia Zhang-ke’s Mountains May Depart is thematically grounded. Jia is the cinema’s great epic poet of drift—one is always aware of the movement of time in the span of a given narrative, the physical sensation of the ground shifting beneath our feet. The plot is simplicity itself. We begin in Fenyang, in 1999, on the cusp of the capitalist explosion in China. Zhao Tao, as poignant and winning as she is in all of Jia’s work, has two suitors—Zhang (Zhang Yi), a young entrepreneur, and Liangzi (Liang Jin Dong), a coal miner. Her choice of Zhang feels “natural” to her, maybe a little sad, and… of course she’ll marry him, what else would she do? Fifteen years later, they’re divorced, their son Dollar lives with Zhang and his new wife in Shanghai, and when the citified and internationalized boy comes to visit his estranged mother, they feel the distance: as her son has grown away from her, so has the world around her, and Zhang has grown richer while Liangzi has grown poorer and sicker with a respiratory ailment. To tick off the plot elements is, again, to make the film seem like something it isn’t, namely a soap opera. Jia’s film exists on two temporal planes: that of the characters and that of the world, the first of which always moves more slowly than the latter. This is, I believe, an extremely common sensation, and there is no other filmmaker alive who captures it so well. The force of Mountains May Depart is so great that the much-remarked “flaw” of the film’s final section, set in 2025 (as the teenaged Dollar, Dong Zijian should be speaking English flawlessly and with an Australian accent, but does neither), hardly matters at all.
Journey to the Shore
Like Hong Sang-soo, Kiyoshi Kurosawa makes films in a stream, one feeding into the next. Journey to the Shore, based on Kazumi Yumoto’s 2010 novel, is a mourning film, at once a deepening and an extension of 2013’s Real. There is, once again, a young couple. Mizuki (Eri Fukatsu), a piano teacher living in Tokyo, is visited by her dead husband Yusuke (Tadanobu Asano—this is only his second film for Kurosawa but their bond feels as solid as the one the director once enjoyed with Koji Yakusho). They go traveling, to visit the people and the places he’s known since he died, and the form of their journey becomes moving in and of itself: they travel by train to a series of seemingly ideal “situations” in which the living and the dead work and live harmoniously; each gradually loses its inner cohesion, like a dream one has just before waking. There are passages in this film that are so exquisitely tuned and delicately heartbreaking that they seem to have been experienced and remembered rather than seen on a movie screen.
Nanni Moretti’s Mia Madre is another movie about facing mortality. A middle-aged filmmaker Margherita (Margherita Buy) is in the midst of shooting an international co-production with a mercurial American actor (John Turturro—in the film’s funniest scene, his character is trying to act while he’s driving a car whose windshield is plastered with cameras). Alongside her brother (played by the director), she’s also coming to terms with the fact that her beloved mother (Giulia Lazzarini) is dying. Moretti has always been underrated as an actor, and this is a fascinating portrait of a quietly abrasive, intelligent man with a keen eye for his own flaws and a wonderfully tamped-down generosity and warmth. The construction of the film is quite subtle and beautiful: the chaos of the movie within the movie, keeping everything on track and every detail in the right order, merges with the fear brought about by death, of the order of things disturbed and thrown forever off course. Mia Madre is a sharp, sobering, fitfully funny and surprising film about the sadness of losing a loved one, the jolting realization that death is not coming someday but now, and the fragility of existence itself.
Sign up for the Film Comment Letter!
Thoughtful, original film criticism delivered straight to your inbox each week. Enter your email address below to subscribe.