Cannes Dispatch #4: Hou & Jia
Mountains May Depart
Two hotly anticipated films by Asian auteurs were widely discussed in the final few days of the 68th Cannes Film Festival. Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin and Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke’s Mountains May Depart each look at China from a unique vantage point: one film concludes with a look into the future, while the other travels back to a rich time in the country’s past.
Mountains May Depart opens at the optimistic dawn of a new millennium: it’s 1999 and a group of young men and women are dancing in a choreographed sequence set to the early-Nineties pop anthem “Go West” by the Pet Shop Boys. (Due to a projection problem at the first screening of Mountains May Depart, one audience experienced the joyful opening number twice.)
By the start of the new millennium, China had cast off the dark shadows and inwardness of the Cultural Revolution and embraced, even if unofficially, Western capitalism. The country was prospering as it headed confidently into the new century, and the song’s straightforward lyrics spell out this sea change: “Go West / This is what we’re gonna do / Go West / (Together) We will learn and teach / (Together) Change our pace of life / (Together) We will work and strive.”
“It reminded me of the Nineties,” Jia, who was in his twenties then, said of his musical choice during the press conference this week. “At the time we listened to a lot of disco music. Young people danced on the weekends. I couldn’t wait to listen to music and dance. Whenever this song came on, we would line up and dance together. It was sort of a ritual. The dance, we felt, could lead us anywhere in the world.”
Presenting a film approved by the Chinese government here at Cannes does not guarantee that it will screen back home. Jia’s previous feature at Cannes, A Touch of Sin, has not yet been released in his country. As such, the director remains at times coy about the meanings and references layered within his work. ”The word ‘West’ for me is not really important,” he said. “The word that is really important to me is the word ‘go.’”
Mountains May Depart
Mountains May Depart tracks a boy named Dollar whose future is unhappy: living in Australia, he has left behind so much of what shaped him back in China. Yet the emotional core of the film comes from its portrayal of a woman in a love triangle, played by Jia’s frequent collaborator, and wife, Zhao Tao. The story spans 25 years altogether and considers broad economic and societal shifts as well as technological advancements as experienced by a large group of interconnected characters.
“You need time to show the complexity of life,” Jia explained at the press conference. He added that he couldn’t have fully explored these ideas without creating a story that spanned decades.
“The feelings that link people are something that never change, like mountains for many years. I have wanted to make a movie about feelings—maybe it’s my age,” he said. “What was important for me in the film was to show to what extent the changes in societies have an impact on people’s feelings—to look at what does not change: birth, death, disease.”
While the first segment of Mountains May Depart contains both a youthful energy and a sense of tension in the heady late Nineties, the tone turns bittersweet in the film’s present-day segment, then grows darker as the story heads into the future.
“I wanted to depict all these changes. Once this time has gone by, what have we done with our lives? What have we gained in terms of understanding our choices?” Jia said. “I wanted to talk about how one leaves one’s own homeland. This is all bound up in the fate of the future of people.”
Jia affirmed that Mountains May Depart reflects on the impact of China’s powerhouse economy on its culture. He sought to explore certain questions, among them, he said, “What is money? Does money improve our lives or does money destroy parts of our lives?” He also wanted to depict the destruction of nature.
“I didn’t want to make things too explicit. Of course you know what I am talking about,” he said. “I’m not someone who works a lot with metaphors. It’s not what I really like. But sometimes what is not made explicit can seem like a metaphor.”
While Jia considers China’s recent past and what lies ahead, Hou’s The Assassin was inspired by a fictional story from the Tang Dynasty. The 9th-century tale tracks Nie Yinniang, who is abducted at a young age and trained to be a professional killer. She is eventually brought back to the place of her upbringing with orders to execute a local governor—a man to whom she was once betrothed.
A fan of wuxia since his youth, Hou said that he devoured the stories as a kid. In the press notes for the film, Hou said: “I wanted to try my hand at the genre 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 Assassin opens with a backstory shot in black and white that, like the prologue to Jia’s Mountains May Depart, is presented in a different aspect ratio to set it apart from the main film. With a rather simple story, Hou's latest has already generated discussion of its astonishing technical achievements. Shot on film and beautifully composed, it features long takes, wide shots, and deeply saturated colors.
“This dynasty is a very colorful one, with fantastic tales,” Hou explained during an intimate press conference this week, referring both to its imagery and to the complex social and political realities underlying the story.
Hou’s contribution to martial-arts cinema features a precision and subtlety not typically seen in its popular counterparts. The Assassin depicts both the interior and exterior world of its time period in rich detail. Hou emphasizes realistic aspects of everyday life in the film—how people of the period dressed, ate, and even bathed.
Discussing her work with Hou, star Shu Qi—who has appeared in three of his films including Millennium Mambo (01) and Three Times (05)—emphasized the director’s comprehensive vision.
“Props, clouds, water, wind, fire all are equally important,” Shu said at the press conference. “For him, the circulation of the air is as important as other things.”
Hou was particularly inspired by the look of the region where he shot the movie, in the north of China. Being there, he said, was like being transported into a classical painting.
“Perhaps I am something of a painter,” Hou mused. “I think I would have been good as a painter, but it didn’t suit me as a person. I prefer to make films.”
Hou makes films that he says aren’t intended to cater to moviegoers, and are instead deeply personal statements that reveal his passions.
“If you end up thinking of the audience, you make a different style of film,” he explained. “It’s very personal. If you decide not to think about the audience, that is one thing, but if you do, the road may become more narrow. I follow my inclination. I always do my utmost to film what is dearest to my heart. In this time when Hollywood reigns supreme, we don’t want the cinema to become poorer in the future.”
Ten of Hou’s films have debuted here at Cannes over the course of his career, and they are treated as singular events. At the gala red-carpet premiere of The Assassin the other night, the filmmaker was greeted with an extended standing ovation as he entered the packed Grand Lumière Theater.
At the press conference, Hou said he hoped to make another martial-arts movie to continue to explore the genre. But he’s aware of the budget constraints on his careful working methods.
“If this film is a success financially, then I’ll make another film. If not, you may have to wait a long time,” he worried aloud.
“Time flies,” Hou, who is 68 and started production on The Assassin several years ago, said. “I’m already quite old. I thought I better hurry up and make the film.”