2015 was a complicated year for me, and not just because I was diagnosed with incurable glioblastoma in December. I also worked in a fairly demanding position (but with plenty of great help) on the World Science Fiction Convention, Sasquan, which was held in Spokane in August last year, and my work environment was so stressful all year that, on top of the stress from the Worldcon prep, I ended up developing a bad case of shingles in July. One result of all this was that I didn’t watch as many movies last year as I did the year before. However, looking over the list of what I did watch, 2015 looks like a very good film year to me. So here’s my look back at the films of 2015 — a little later than my year-in-review usually is.
I saw 44 films in the theater this year, down from 58 in 2014. I usually rank these things by how many times I pay to see them in the theater, and even the number of films I saw more than once in the theater is down from 2014 (six compared to nine).
The one movie I saw three times in the theater was by far my favorite movie of the year: Mad Max: Fury Road. I don’t find much to add to my original review, except to confirm that Miller was in fact playing with audience expectations in any number of ways and to re-stress that Max’s heroism in the film is embodied in an act of healing as much as of violence. Related to that, another way the story condenses its themes down is that way that stealing bodily fluids and giving bodily fluids is used to embody evil and good. I think this is a brilliant work of pop artistry, honed and burnished to the last baroque detail and upping the standards for vehicular gladitorialism (sorry) and blockbuster feminist heroism for a new generation.
Next are the movies I saw two times in the theater:
Ex Machina: And see also a follow-up review, Deuce Ex Machina. This is probably my second favorite movie of the year. Not only did it seem like the smartest science fiction story, exploring interesting ideas about artificial intelligence, both scientific and moral, but like Mad Max: Fury Road it challenges viewers to examine why they identify with some characters and not others, and especially whether and why we identify with male characters instead of female and expect them to be the heroes. I liked this movie the second time through, but I did find one piece of expectation manipulation that felt a little bit like cheating (see the second review for details). Still, this was a smart, elegant, sexy, creepy little masterpiece, following very nicely on the heels of the artier Under the Skin from 2014.
Inherent Vice: This is a little weird to me, because I don’t remember seeing it twice. It’s in my log that I did, and if I didn’t simply mislog it somehow, I can vaguely summon up a memory that I went to see it a second time because I was so disappointed in the first viewing and wanted to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. I see that in my review I said I probably needed to see it a second time “before I can really dig into it.” If that’s what I did, it sure left no impression the second time around, for whatever reason. Once again I can’t add much to what I said in my review. “Shambolic” is probably the key word to express my perspective on the proceedings, and also “influenced by Robert Altman.” (I completely bounced off of Nashville on DVD last year, and I’ve never liked The Long Goodbye, which is the direct antecedent to this.) This was not a favorite film at all, but a huge disappointment.
The Taking of Tiger Mountain: Tsui Hark’s adaptation of the the classical Maoist Peking Opera (or actually of the novel, Tracks in the Snowy Forest, that was also made into the opera) about the People’s Liberation Army taking control of the country from the Japanese after World War II is his best film since Time and Tide (2000). This is another great action film, but it’s also a great battle of wits. It’s shamelessly nationalistic and patriotic, but it also pokes fun at itself (and its audience) in the end. Good old-fashioned fun that I compared jokingly to Raoul Walsh’s shamelessly nationalistic old Hollywood war pictures with Errol Flynn, but you know what, there’s something to that comparison.
The Assassin: I was worried that I would find this Taiwanese art house wuxia film too arty and intellectual, but it seduced me not only with its sensuous visual and aural beauty but also with its tricky, fragmented, jigsaw-puzzle narrative. If there was a more beautiful depiction of natural landscapes in film this year, it was only in The Revenant, and I would still give The Assassin the edge, because it doesn’t use adrenaline to get you excited about what you’re looking at. Just the opposite, this is a very calm, sedate, slow, meditative film. That it still functions as a wuxia narrative, even if an extremely offbeat and oblique one, is some kind of miracle. It’s an adaptation of an ancient Chinese story — something like Beowulf in age in the European tradition — and it assumes that you know a lot about Chinese history, but even though I don’t know a lot about Chinese history, I was mesmerized.
Carol: Speaking of films that I worried would be too arty and intellectual, I’ve had a problem connecting to Todd Haynes’ movies since Velvet Goldmine (1998). Still, they’re always worth watching, and I looked forward to this one because it was an adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novel. I loved it. As film critic (and friend) Kim Nicolini says, it’s about two women who are unreliable narrators and dishonest with themselves and with everyone around them. The reason is that they live in a society that doesn’t recognize their feelings for each other as normal or legitimate, and the film has a sickly, repressive feeling to it, as the women’s love for each other is almost literally policed by a disapproving community. As Kim says, the sense of claustrophobia (fear of the closet) is palpable and painful. On that level the story functions within Haynes’ favorite genre: melodrama, in which women suffer because of the social roles they’re trapped in. Another work of mesmerizing visual beauty, but more for its faces and interior settings than for its landscapes.
The number of films I saw more than once in the theater may have been down compared to last year, but there were an unusual number of films I saw only once but would very much like to see again as soon as possible. I’m just going to list these and link to my reviews without going into detail about why they made this particular cut: The Hateful Eight; The Revenant; Star Wars: The Force Awakens; Song of the Sea.
But then I also want to list a bunch of films I saw only once that seemed singular in ways that maybe won’t compel me to see them again: What We Do in the Shadows; Brooklyn (which I haven’t reviewed yet, oops); Crimson Peak (I bet I actually do watch this again eventually, such gorgeous gothic eye candy!); Dope; Girlhood; Joy (also not reviewed yet, oops, I’m really behind); Maps to the Stars; The Martian; A Most Violent Year; Phoenix; Predestination.
Then there were the disappointing movies: Inherent Vice (See above in twice-seen movies); Furious Seven (I thought Furious 6 was the best action film of of 2013, and it has held up on TV since then, so this dud was a let-down, even though no other film that I’ve seen from the Fast & Furious franchise has been as good as the sixth); Self/less (Tarsem Singh has made two of my favorite eccentric and outrageously gorgeous films of recent years, so it was depressing to see him come up with something so bland, generic and uninspired); Sicario (There’s actually a lot about this film that I loved, which may be why I found the denouement such a cop-out and let-down; still very much worth seeing, however).
Meanwhile, at home I watched a total of 49 movies, down from 101 (!) in 2014. Once again I saw a lot of terrific, amazing movies, and I’m not even going to try to list the best of them. Instead I’ll just mention two of the series I started, with neither completed yet. First I started watching Roman Polanski’s films in (almost) chronological order from the beginning. I got as far as Cul-de-Sac (1966) before I concluded that Polanski’s view of life and humanity is too bleak and sour for me. Not that he doesn’t have good reason for his bleak view, as someone who saw the Holocaust up close as an adolescent. However, I cheated a little on the chronology and also watched Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Chinatown (1974). It almost seems a shame to stop where I did, because two of the next ones are two of my favorites by him: The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) and Macbeth (1971).
I started a similar series of Tsui Hark films, inspired by my enthusiasm for his latest (see above in twice-seen movies) and finally going back to his earliest films and starting something like a chronological survey. Tsui’s goofy, manic outlook is more in tune with mine, and I want to keep working my way through his filmography in the coming year, as I’m finally getting back to the movies that I first fell in love with upon digging more deeply into the Hong Kong film industry starting about fifteen years ago.
Again, it was a marvelous year for movies as far as I’m concerned. I just wish I had more time/energy for writing about the older films I watch, not just the new ones. Whatever happened to the days when I was watching silent films anyway? I miss them!
I’ve only seen two films by Alejandro González Iñárritu: this one and the previous one, Birdman. I loved them both, but none of his other films has interested me whatsoever, for some reason. Anyway, it’s hard to see much similarity between Birdman and The Revenant, other than the grotesque closeups, the probing, extemporaneous feeling of the camerawork (same cinematographer for both films, Emmanuel Lubezki), and a somewhat mystical feel to the proceedings. Oh yes, and floating people! It is a completely immersive action-adventure film that seems to be constantly on the move in a very flowing way, like a torrent of cold, invigorating water, but it doesn’t attempt to create the artificial sense of one long continuous take like Birdman did. For all the feeling of immediacy, it’s also very beautiful, and even the landscapes feel very intimate — just the way he shoots upward through the trees into the sky creates a vertiginous feeling of being there. The landscape shots don’t exactly create a feeling of peacefulness, but they do create rests in the rhythm where you can catch your breath.
Much has been made of how this supposedly real-life story about the historical mountain man, Hugh Glass, actually strays from what’s known about him in significant ways. Some people have gone so far as to say that this is a Hollywood betrayal of the real story, traducing facts for the sake of action spectacle. A typical example of this criticism is Irwin Jerome’s review, “Bastardized History: the True Odyssey of Hugh Glass vs ‘The Revenant'” published by Counterpunch. The rest of my review is going to include SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS as I address some of these criticisms, because I think Jerome is completely misreading the film, although in a way that allows me to expound on what I think is a better reading. First of all, Jerome complains that although Glass did live with the Pawnees, he never married a Pawnee woman or fathered a son with her, so the existence of the son in the movie is a falsehood and inauthentic. True enough, but Jerome thinks the son only exists in the story to be murdered “for the purpose of pandering to yet more sensationalized, senseless murder and violence to sell more movie tickets.” It’s interesting to me that Jerome doesn’t grapple at all with the other inauthentic character here — Glass’s Pawnee wife — who is seen throughout the film advising him, for example, that the strength of a tree is not in the trunk but in the roots. These two characters are inserted into the story for reasons completely different from what Jerome supposes.
First of all, it gives Glass a reason to survive beyond the desire for revenge for the crime of leaving him to die. He is in fact motivated by the love for his son and wife. It may not be authentic, but it isn’t pandering to senseless murder and violence; it’s pandering to feelings of love for one’s wife and child. Secondly, and maybe even more importantly, it shows that Glass has a connection to the Indians, and particularly the Pawnee, and this creates a contrast with the other characters in the movie who are almost all racists, particularly Fitzgerald, who was half-scalped by an Indian and perhaps understandably hates them for it. The distinction between Glass and his fellow white men may be more liberal pandering, but in story terms it creates an important distinction: again, he survives the mauling by the bear and the premature burial not just because of his lust for revenge, but because his friendliness with the Pawnee and ability to speak the language eventually means that a wandering Pawnee man, whose family and tribe were wiped out by Sioux, agrees to take care of him and actually uses Indian medicine to cure the wounds from the mauling that are starting to kill him. He wouldn’t survive without his connection to the Pawnee.
Perhaps Jerome’s most bizarre reading is that the fact that Glass chose not to kill Fitzgerald in real life shows us that “forgiveness can ultimately transcend revenge.” Jerome himself explains that the reason that Glass didn’t kill Fitzgerald is that Fitzgerald had meanwhile enlisted in the US Army, so murdering him would mean that Glass himself would be executed by the US Army. I’m not seeing the forgiveness or transcendence there, just a pragmatic bit of self-preservation. Also, despite the bloody knife fight between Glass and Fitzgerald at the climax of the film, Glass doesn’t actually kill him in the movie either, but rather tosses him in the river, which carries him to the members of the Indian tribe that have been trailing the white trappers throughout the film, because some other white trappers had kidnapped and raped the chief’s daughter, and these Indians kill Fitzgerald. I’m not sure this part of the story fits with the part about Glass’s connection to the Pawnee (these other Indians are from a different tribe, but I never did understand the name they were called), but it does connect to the general theme that the white men have been cruel to the Indians, who are looking for revenge too, even as they also fight amongst themselves. In other words, who is the good guy and who is the bad guy in all this is ambiguous. It seemed pretty clear that Glass knew the Indians would kill Fitzgerald, so his literally bloody hands don’t seem particularly clean either. I don’t think we’re supposed to admire him for what he’s done, although we may be amazed at his will to survive.
I’m not arguing, by the way, that an interesting story couldn’t be made from what is known about what really happened to Glass, which even Jerome concedes is murky and contested. But if you’re going to accuse a movie of making shit up to somehow scam us all, I think you need to try to understand what the artists are trying to accomplish rather than just leaping to the conclusion that they’re a bunch of sensationalistic whores doing anything to make money. I mean, again, this movie may well pander to back-patting white liberals who like to think they’re down with the Indians, but that’s actually a far different “inauthenticity” than what Jerome is claiming. I do think it’s worth holding these stories up for scrutiny and the bullshit test, but for that matter I do quite often enjoy the product of sensationalistic whores. The spectacle in this one is of a pretty high quality, even if I ultimately see Mad Max: Fury Road as the far superior, far more radical action movie.
Apologies for the relatively long delay since I last posted. A couple of things have been going on, and no it isn’t that the dog ate my homework.
First of all, I was diagnosed with brain cancer in December, and I started the first phase of treatment (radiation+chemo) in January, after recovering from brain surgery to remove the tumor. I haven’t had much energy for this blog since I started the treatment, although I’ve been doing plenty of writing elsewhere. This first treatment phase lasts until February 24th, and I hope to have more energy and time for the Dreamland Cafe after that.
The other big thing is that I’ve switched web hosting companies. My previous web host, Powweb, took my WordPress site down in the middle of January because of a malware infection. They gave me a list of the infected files and told me to delete them and then reply to the notifying email message when I had done so. I did that, but they didn’t reply to my email message. So I tried replying to that email message again a few days later, and then the next day I finally found the ticket on their administrative site and replied there. By that time I was so fed up already, that I had a friend come over to help me switch to a new web host, and we called Powweb support. A very nice guy in Manilla explained that the techs would need to rescan my files, and the next day I got another email saying there was still one infected file. I deleted that. The next day I got a message asking me to do a fresh install of all my files from backups. Maybe they should have fucking told me that in the first place rather than having me pointlessly delete over 40 files from multiple directories?
By that time I had looked at a half dozen other companies that friends recommended and found that they were all at least a hundred dollars a month cheaper than Powweb. I ended up going with Fast Comet, because they charged a tenth as much. I don’t know how long that price will last, but so far (not very long, admittedly) their customer service has been much better. We’ll see how the long term relationship goes. Needless to say, I do not recommend Powweb whatsoever. Maybe I misunderstood what they were asking of me, but I found their customer support absolutely useless.
There is still some design work I need to do on this new WordPress installation, but again, I don’t have the energy for it right now. All in good time. In the meantime, I have three more recent movies I want to review, as well as a Movies of 2015 post that I want to do. Here’s hoping you’ve all been having a better 2016 than I have so far, although I have to say I’ve been happy with the movies I’ve been seeing lately.
The Hateful Eight is only the third Tarantino film I’ve seen in the theater (the other two are Jackie Brown and Django Unchained). I’ve seen most, but not all, of Kill Bill on TV, but nothing else. I have a hard time with the hype around Tarantino, which started right away with Pulp Fiction and has never let up. I also find his public persona such a complete jackass that I have a hard time getting past it. I know I shouldn’t judge an artist by their public persona, but sometimes I’m weak that way. I have the same problem with Lars Von Trier. So it’s probably not saying much to say that of what I’ve seen so far, The Hateful Eight is by far my favorite Tarantino film. Jackie Brown was my previous favorite, and I still have to give it points for the character of Jackie herself, who is unusual from what else I’ve seen by Tarantino so far in that she isn’t driven by the need for vengeance.
I saw The Hateful Eight in 70mm, which I’ve heard is a different, longer version of the film than the regular format version, although I really haven’t dug into the details. Despite the fact that the Pacific Place projection looked just slightly out of focus to me, it still looked magnificent, the Morricone soundtrack is thunderously great, and the acting is excellent from top to bottom. I hadn’t realized going in that the story was once again the Matter of America, which is to say slavery and the Civil War. But Tarantino atones for the boneheaded move in Django Unchained of making the house slave a greater villain than the slavemaster. Here white racism is endemic and pervasive, and the price paid by the black characters, including Samuel Jackson’s bounty hunter, is painfully clear. What’s interesting, however, is how Tarantino indulges in a utopian resolution (and this is at least a mild spoiler) in which the racist cracker sheriff finally makes common cause with the black bounty hunter, which is one of the fondest dreams of white American progressives but which sounds a particularly false note in a year in which racist crackers are reacting to their hatred of a black president by rallying around the fascist Donald Trump.
It’s also telling that the great alliance dreamed up by Tarantino is made in the cause of (spoiler again) killing a despicable female character. Jennifer Jason Leigh is utterly terrific in the role, but once again Tarantino bathes us in testosterone and blood, with phallocentric climaxes both in Jackson’s eloquent and hilarious monologue on his humiliation of the son of a Confederate general and in Jackson’s own painful comeuppance in the end. I don’t think I’ve ever used the word phallocentric in a sentence before, but it seems completely appropriate here. There are some more female characters in the film, mostly in a flashback in the final act, but for the most part this is a sausage fest, and Tarantino gets to add “bitch” to his edgy, provocative (or self-congratulatory?) freedom with the word “nigger”. I guess he thinks he has a Bitch Pass to go with his Nigger Pass.
So while I loved this movie, I still don’t love the film maker. My invidious diatribe would be that it’s shameful that Tarantino gets money thrown at him to make these feel good blood baths while a truly great and challenging director like Kathryn Bigelow hasn’t gotten the funding to make another movie since Zero Dark Thirty, possibly because too many nitwits wanted to be told that torture is unequivocally evil rather than be asked the more conflicted question of whether the killing of Osama Bin Laden was in fact worth the moral price we collectively and complicitly paid. Same as it ever was, I guess. End of rant, and carry on, Quentin. Now I’m curious to see the non-70mm version and how it might be different.
The most hyped movie of the year! I went in prepared to be disappointed, especially since I thought J.J. Abrams’ second Star Trek movie was a real let down, not to mention how crappy the second Star Wars trilogy was. But I have to say that Abrams more or less knocked this one out of the park. My biggest gripe is that the lavish references to and repetitions of the first movie feel a bit mechanical and fetishistic, if not cannibalistic, but for the most part I thought it still worked well as pleasurable fan service. If you’re going to be fetishistic, pleasure should be your goal, after all. The way the old characters were introduced into the story was well-calculated and -played. I was surprised at how happy I was to see those old characters again, in fact. That was something the second trilogy did not have at its disposal, and Abrams makes the most of his chance to play around with our nostalgic old flames.
As an action-adventure epic, it’s hard to quibble with. It starts fast and keeps up a steady pace of action, but although it never slows down, it also never wore me out. The production design has real grandeur, and it must be said that when shit blows up, it blows up more impressively than in the original film. The destruction of a planet has much greater impact in this one than in the old one, and the sheer scale of the new Death Star, as well, as the destruction of it (that’s a spoiler, but if you’ve seen the first film, you damned well know it’s coming), is equally impressive, although again, it’s so obvious that it’s going to happen that the sheer massive spectacle of it wasn’t quite enough to get me past the obviousness of what was about to happen.
The characters are well-wrought, and that’s probably the biggest improvement over the second trilogy. Han and Leia look like they have the history we learn about, and there’s real tenderness and regret in their relationship that again surpasses what we saw in the original trilogy. They seem to have grown, even while still having their flaws and limitations. The most serious criticism I’ve seen of the film is that the black character, Finn, is relegated to sidekick duty for the white savior character, Rey. The racial politics of the Star Wars films have always been problematic, and the earliest attempt by George Lucas to address the problem, the character of Lando Calrissian in the second installment, was problematic in his own right. Finn is a much more interesting character — a conflicted former stormtrooper trying to make up for the collective crimes he’s been a part of by association, if not by commission. He also gets to be funny, heroic, and dashing. It remains true, however, that Rey is the savior character in whom “the Force is strong.” Part of the racial problem of the franchise is built in, because so many of the original characters are white. But why did the cocky pilot, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) in this one need to be white? Finn gets to wield a light saber, but why doesn’t he get to wield the Force?
But the movie also embodies one of the oldest schisms in American progressive politics, between white feminists and black civil rights activists. (Cf. the disagreement between the two groups over which of them should get the right to vote first.) Rey is another very good character, and it’s great that the white savior this time is female rather than male as in the original. I also thought it was very cool that the film acknowledged Leia’s own connection to the Force, as the daughter of Annakin Skywalker, much more than the original trilogy ever did. There’s another powerful female character named Maz Kanata, but she also points up the problematic racial politics, because she’s played by Lupita Nyong’o, but her race is invisible to us. It’s good that Nyong’o got the work, and I hope they paid her well, but it’s too bad that they couldn’t find a human role for her to play. Why couldn’t she have been the cocky heroic pilot, Poe Dameron, in fact?
But while I think the problematic racial politics is real — and in the US it’s unfortunately also almost inevitable — it’s still an improvement on the original movies on that score. As much as it repeats what we’ve seen before, I’d say it largely demonstrates an improved understanding of how to tell this now classic story we’ve seen before. I can’t say it’s straight out better than the first movie, which has already withstood the test of time, but I won’t be surprised if I end up feeling that way, which surprises the hell out of me. The other thing I didn’t know going in is that Lawrence Kasdan worked on the screenplay. He co-wrote the best of the original trilogy, The Empire Strikes back, along with Leigh Brackett, and once I saw his name in the credits, I thought, “Aha! That’s why it feels like it’s hitting the same familiar marks and moves as the best that came before.” I was impressed, dang it, and I certainly didn’t expect to be.
This movie has been praised to the skies already, and I’m not sure what I have to add to the hosannas. Based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel, The Price of Salt, it is a visually beautiful, meticulously designed and composed, magnificently acted story about two women who fall in love in 1951, when lesbian relationships were essentially illegal. Cate Blanchett is the title character — an upper class woman whose marriage is already on the rocks when the film begins. Carol meets Therese (Rooney Mara) in a department story while shopping for a Christmas present for her young daughter and invites Therese out to lunch. Therese is being pursued by a man who wants to marry her and is also being hit on by other men, while she seems to be uncertain what she wants or why she doesn’t want what’s being offered her. Carol has had an affair in the past with her childhood friend, Abby, but they have returned to being just friends. Carol’s husband, Harge, is still in love with her and desperately trying to keep their marriage together despite Carol’s complete disinterest. Things eventually come to a head around Christmas, and Carol and Therese head off on a road trip to discover what there is between them.
There are a lot of obstacles to their love in 1951, but one of the things the film does very well is to treat all the characters sympathetically, even when they are being selfish jerks. It’s a romance, but it’s also a melodrama, in the sense that it’s about women trapped in social roles that make them very unhappy. However, and this is probably a spoiler unless you’ve read the novel, the other striking thing about this film is that it doesn’t end tragically, as so many people expect from a lesbian story set in the ’50s. In fact, it has a more or less happy ending, although Carol is still being blocked from seeing her daughter as much as she wants to. I’m told that Highsmith’s novel was controversial at the time because it refused to conform to the tragic narrative arc such stories were expected to take at the time.
The only thing that bugged me about Carol is that I’d just watched Haynes’ 2011 TV miniseries adaptation of Mildred Pierce (another melodrama with an unexpectedly happyish ending), and the music Carter Burwell wrote for the two films struck me as essentially identical. It’s good music, but it sounded overly familiar. But that’s a tiny complaint about a film I otherwise found impressively powerful and moving. Definitely one of the best movies of the year, even on a single viewing. Highly recommended.
Except for Casino Royale, the Daniel Craig James Bond films have all left me feeling slightly disappointed on first viewing but have seemed better on a second. So it should be taken with a grain of salt that I found Spectre slightly disappointing. It’s not that it lacks ambition. Like Casino Royale and Skyfall it tweaks the Bond mythos, and in fact it tries its damnedest to connect the dots between those two movies and expand on their revisionist take on Bond and thus provide a final wrapper for the Craig Bond mini-series, as it were. It has some interesting ideas about Bond’s relationship with the villain, Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) and about his relationship with the Bond girl (Léa Seydoux), but in both cases I didn’t feel that the ideas were worked out convincingly. It’s hard to get into either of these things without spoilers, so suffice it to say that both Blofeld and Madeleine Swan struck me as pretty bland characters on the first pass, and the attempts to give them special meaning to Bond felt correspondingly weak. (Compare and contrast with Mad Max: Fury Road, which has a much more radical re-imagining of the place of its iconic hero in the story.)
That said Spectre does provide the requisite elements of a Bond film that make them so attractive: exotic and scenic locales (Mexico City, Rome, Austria, Tangiers), swank decor, elegant outfits, cool gadgets, and spectacular action set-pieces. It also manages to feel almost contemporary in taking on the national security surveillance state as the villain of the piece — although perhaps Christopher Nolan was more honest in The Dark Knight (2008) in having his ambivalent hero resort to all-encompassing surveillance. I have mixed feelings about the way the Craig Bonds have attempted to grapple with the fact that the character is a brutal relic of the Cold War, and here it feels a bit strange that his license to kill is held up as somehow morally superior to the surveillance state.
In any event, I’m quite prepared to like this one better on later viewings, after I’ve gotten over the fact that it’s basically just another Bond film, albeit one with ambitions to be revisionist. Craig is my favorite Bond since Sean Connery, and it’s always a pleasure to watch him tug at his natty suit and smile unpleasantly.
Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s arthouse wuxia film, The Assassin, is an astonishing work of visual beauty with a whole lot of thorny story happening beneath its artfully-composed surface. I’ve seen it twice, and the story made somewhat more sense the second time around, although there’s still a lot I don’t understand. But even the first time the teasing sense of a story just out of reach was enough to carry me along while I admired the profoundly beautiful imagery on display. This doesn’t work for everyone, however, and this is a movie that a lot of people find boring because “nothing happens” — and indeed happens very slowly. But for me it works a bit like a puzzle, with the story being offered in fragments and oblique associations that require the viewer to fit it all together.
The basic set-up is political. In the 9th century the Chinese kingdom is falling apart. The imperial court militarizes some of the provinces to try to hold things together, but then the newly empowered provinces start to threaten the empire themselves. The most powerful of these provinces is Weibo, where the story is set. What we gradually learn over the course of the movie is that the emperor sent one of his sisters to Weibo to marry the governor in an attempt to forge a political bond. Much of the submerged story circles around the attempts to maintain that bond and the family and personal relationships of the imperial court and the governing family of Weibo.
Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), the assassin of the title, was raised in Weibo but taken by another sister of the emperor at an early age and trained in martial arts. Thus Yinniang is an agent of the imperial court, and she’s sent back to Weibo to kill the current governor, Lord Tian. I still don’t fully understand Yinniang’s relationships to all the characters. Her mother and uncle were apparently part of the ruling family of Weibo, because they were the ones who ceremonially welcomed the imperial Princess Jiaxing when she was brought to the province years before. Yinniang’s father, Nie Feng, is referred to as Provost in the subtitles, but elsewhere I’ve seen him described as a provincial general, which seems to fit what we see him do in the film. Her uncle is a counselor to the governor, Lord Tian (Chang Chen), and he gets himself into trouble by counseling that Weibo refrain from fomenting trouble between two other provinces, which he fears will bring imperial troops into Weibo.
Lord Tian is referred to as Yinniang’s cousin, but it’s not clear to me what kind of cousins they are. He calls Princess Jiaxing his mother, but he also explains that his real mother was a concubine. If the concubine is identified, I haven’t picked up on that, so I don’t know if she was related to Yinniang. What we’re told by Lord Tian is that Princess Jiaxing betrothed him and Yinniang when they were still children as another attempt to forge a bond between province and imperial court, but because Tian was not really Jiaxing’s son, she later broke the betrothal to have him marry somebody else to strengthen his claim to the Weibo governorship. This is one of the story cruxes that only started to open up on the second viewing, as I came to understand that Lady Tian had hired the white-haired sorceror to kill Tian’s preganant concubine and as I also came to suspect that Lady Tian was the masked swordswoman that Yinniang fights and unmasks, although the audience never sees the unmasked face. (Hou confirms that the masked swordsman is Lady Tian in an interview for Film Comment.)
I’m spending so much time on the story and backstory because it’s the hardest thing to understand, plus I’m enticed by the puzzle of it. The Assassin is very much a wuxia film in the convolutions of the story of faction against faction in pursuit of power, even if the story is so deeply buried it’s hard to make out. Hou makes it deliberately difficult to figure out who the characters are just by not giving us information about them, but then he also does things like reveal that the woman who tells the story of the bluebird that has such metaphorical resonance throughout the film wasn’t, in fact, the Princess-Nun who trained Yinniang in martial arts but the Princess Jiaxing, who was the Princess-Nun’s twin sister. This revelation is also how we can understand that Yinniang is an agent of the imperial court, which isn’t otherwise stated. That’s the kind of oblique association I referred to earlier. Another is the revelation of the concubine Huji’s pregnancy, which is told to us in three different situations with three different implications. If you connect it to the fact that Lord Tian was the child of a concubine, it creates a little story in itself that may explain why Lady Tian is trying to kill Huji. It’s as if the story is happening in the gaps between facts that aren’t explicitly connected.
While I certainly was able to connect a few more of the narrative dots the second time through, I’m doubtful that all the dots can be connected just based on watching the movie itself. For example, there’s the mysterious character whom we first see filling a bamboo bottle with water from a stream during the forest attack on Yinniang’s uncle. This man, who has no weapon to speak of, intervenes in the attack and nearly gets himself killed before Yinniang arrives to save the day. He takes the uncle’s party, including Yinniang’s injured father, back to his village, and there we see him showing off a mirror for three children. Later he bandages Yinniang’s wound after her duel with Lady Tian (although it’s always hard to be certain of the chronology and sequence of events), and at the very end of the movie Yinniang returns to his village again and we hear that she had promised to do so and that she’ll help another man make a trip to a destination we haven’t heard of until then. Who are these people? The original 9th Century story that the movie’s based on (which may be also where I learned that Yinniang’s father was a general) includes a character called the mirror polisher who is mentioned only in passing as the man she marries. It’s thus tempting to read the interactions between them in the movie as signs of love and a coming together, but if it’s in the film at all it’s in such subtle moments as the intimacy of mirror polisher dressing the wound on her naked shoulder.
I haven’t said much about the aesthetic pleasures of The Assassin, although there’s plenty of that in other reviews. Hou is famous for using long takes, and here he uses them to create landscapes that look like classical paintings, with careful gradations of color and contrast. The sense of natural beauty is enhanced by the use of ambient noise in the soundtrack. The costumes and sets are also beautifully designed, and the use of architecture in the compositions is just as striking as the natural landscapes. Interiors have a feeling of being shot by candlelight or lamplight. One long sequence that many people comment on is shot through diaphanous curtains of gauzy fabric through which we can make out the ghostly faces of characters looking without directly seeing, and it reminded me of something out of Josef von Sternberg, which is high praise from me. There are moments that seem almost miraculous or mystical as when four birds erupt out of a dark tree beside a wintery pool, or the shot of the Nun-Princess standing on a lonely tor while mist rises up behind her to hide the landscape and isolate her against a blanket of white. Even the first time I watched the film, when I couldn’t follow much of the story at all, I found it mesmerizing to watch and to listen to.
I’m generally not a fan of anti-narrative art. I’m a genre-lover who likes traditional stories with conflicts and development and resolution. But I don’t mind being made to work at understanding the story, if the effort ends up seeming worth it. Maybe as a genre-lover I was prone to be sympathetic to this wuxia story, even though it doesn’t offer the standard thrills of a wuxia story. It plays with the genre tropes (the magic of the white-bearded sorcerer may only be a form of psychological manipulation), but it also just adds odd details that makes you wonder without answer (why is the white-bearded sorcerer a Caucasian?) There’s a suggestion of endless, unfathomable depth to the world created on the flat screen. The buried story feels like buried treasure.