To the Wonder

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(Dir. Terrence Malick, United States, 2012)

Glimpses of Beauty

The latest visual poetry from the ever-enigmatic Terrence Malick finds the filmmaker exploring themes of romantic love in the present day, both for the first time. Never has such a short amount of time passed between Malick films, and given the universal critical acclaim of The Tree of Life, it might explain why the overall reaction (if any at all) to this year’s To the Wonder was generally poor. If viewed merely as leftovers from 2011’s cinematic triumph, then Malick’s latest would certainly seem like a resounding disappointment. But, seeing To the Wonder through a new lens – one not tired of the director’s aesthetic – reveals that his latest is rather unlike its immediate predecessor at all and that the director has new territory yet to uncover. While The Tree of Life grappled with existential quandaries that called for sequences devoted to the grandiosity of the cosmos, To the Wonder appears much smaller in scale focusing on the lives of just a few in small town America – no less accomplished, but seemingly more personal, intimate.

In this way, Malick’s latest most resembles The New World, if one must find an antecedent in his oeuvre. In that film, Pocahontas became a foreigner discovering a foreign land as she came to live with the English settlers in Jamestown and eventually journey to England. Here, the foreigner is Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a Ukrainian woman raising her daughter (Tatiana Chiline) in Paris only to be uprooted again when she follows a new love to his home in the United States. Their newfound love sustains Marina and Neil (Ben Affleck) only for a time. Soon, Marina finds Neil consistently distant and her daughter pining for the familiarity of home. Mistaking the feelings of security, comfort, and passion for love, she decides to leave Neil and return to Paris when her visa expires only to come back to the States when the burden of his absence becomes too much to bear. Ultimately, however, the disillusionment of this troubled union leads her into the arms of another man, effectively dissolving her love affair and marriage. To mirror Marina’s crisis of faith in love, Malick also gives us Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) – another foreigner in this strange land who likewise stands on the edge of a crisis of faith. This morose priest cannot help but doubt the goodness of God when faced with the injustices of poverty, sickness, and suffering that surround him.

The bulk of Malick’s film rests on these tumultuous relationships between characters: those between Marina and Neil, Jane (a former love interest whom Neil revisits, played by Rachel McAdams) and Neil, and Father Quintana and God. The people who populate To the Wonder may very well be Malick’s most wounded characters yet. And, like his previous work, the filmmaker favors voiceover narration over dialogue. In fact, almost all dialogue has been eclipsed by the use of voiceovers and the film’s saturnine soundtrack adding to its internalized intimacy. Plenty of great films reproduce the realistic, verbose arguments that shatter relationships (such as Richard Linklater’s recent Before Midnight), but no other working filmmaker quite captures the equally damaging and present silent moments in between exchanges like Malick. His latest features the most notable instances of trailing dialogue suggesting that these interchanges are not nearly as important as the effect they have on his characters.

In more than its sole reliance on voiceovers, To the Wonder marks several firsts for its director. The aforementioned contemporary and suburban setting challenges the filmmaker and regular collaborator director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki to highlight manmade infrastructure over nature. Malick trades in clusters of trees for rows of homes, natural landscapes for drive-thrus and grocery stores, and yet the final product is one of inexplicable beauty. Too, the director’s bold decision to shoot non-actors as the small town’s residents proves to be a wise choice and one that adds a new element of verisimilitude yet unseen in his work. All of this undeniably adds to the film’s delicate intimacy.

Eschewing the grand themes and execution of his three previous efforts, the title of his latest proves somewhat ironic. The Tree of Life provided the apex of cinematic wonder and stood as a culmination of the explorations of his entire body of work, thus with a title like To the Wonder, one might rightly assume a furtherance of the same. But, unlike her earlier filmic counterparts (Linda in Days of Heaven, Private Witt in The Thin Red Line, Pocahontas in The New World, and the O’Brien family in The Tree of Life) Marina seems least concerned with unearthing the wonder buried in her surroundings. Yes, she hints at discovery (finding honesty in a small town American parade or sharing in her daughter’s fascination with the cleanliness of a grocery store), but ultimately she is too distracted by her own desires for love to experience the world bursting forth before her eyes. To be sure, this is not a criticism, but it draws a definite line between the trajectory of his last three features and this. To the Wonder may be his most intimate project, but it will probably also resonate with the fewest of his viewers. Whereas we are invited to participate in the musings of Pocahontas as she discovers the new world or Jack O’Brien as he contemplates the meaning of life, Marina’s journey is private and we are invited to watch, but not to engage.

Malick seeks to amend this with the inclusion of Father Quintana’s presence and his own posture of questioning. As a possible, hopeful corrective to Marina’s final decision to abandon the love that once defined her (despite Neil’s presumed forgiveness for her adultery), Quintana’s faith appears restored by film’s end. In a touching sequence narrated by the priest’s self-affirming biblical truths, Quintana (and now Neil) continue to visit the town’s ill, disabled, and downtrodden seemingly recognizing the importance of spreading good. “We were made to see you,” the father meditates as he chooses to rely on something more concrete to repair his faith than mere emotions. But, in the end, it is Marina’s vision we are watching. The film begins and ends with her ruminations. To solidify this notion of internal wondering, Malick concludes his film with an unprecedented (and possibly unintentional) reference to another great filmmaker’s work. The final shots of Mont St. Michel (the Wonder in this film’s title) call to mind the finale of Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love. As Mr. Chow travels to Angkor Wat to hide the secrets of his lost love in the walls of that age-old, sacred structure, so too Marina buries her hopes, dreams, sorrows, and regrets in the memory of the Wonder where it all began. These glimpses of beauty, if only too brief, mark another breathtaking chapter in Terrence Malick’s revered canon and suggest that his most personal film is yet to come.

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In the Mood for Love

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(Dir. Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong, 2000)

A Moment in Time

A man and a woman fall in love. After more than a century of film as a medium of artistic expression, one might assume there’s not much more to explore with regards to the traditional narrative love story. And yet, master Wong Kar-wai crafts one of cinema’s finest with the timeless work of art that is In the Mood for Love – a film at once steeped in nostalgia and memory, yet ushering in another century of film to come. The film stands at a crucial juncture for Wong and his cinema. It is undoubtedly his best work, and it is also a culmination of the defining features of his impressive ‘90s output. Wong was one of the most important voices of that decade with masterpieces Days of Being Wild and Chungking Express to his credit among other great films, and he had already established a highly polished, easily recognizable style with his debut feature As Tears Go By in 1988.

Such early success might have ruined a lesser artist, but Wong continued to find ways for his distinct aesthetic to serve his oft-explored themes throughout the ‘90s, and the definitive proof is in In the Mood for Love – the finest distillation of the filmmaker’s skills. There are traces of the kinetic flourishes found in Chungking Express and Fallen Angels, but it’s refreshingly more subdued, yet no less exhilarating. In exploring the urban loneliness of each of his films, it narrows its focus on a pair of lovers like Happy Together, yet it’s far more nuanced in its portrayal of love and loss, memory and time. It’s a time capsule of Hong Kong in the ‘60s – the era of Wong’s parents – like Days of Being Wild, yet it’s a more poignant, intimate affair with its tale of impossible romance. Every time I watch In the Mood for Love, I am struck not only by its artistry as a whole, but by some new facet that has commanded my attention for its brief hour and a half runtime. Thus, it’s an incredibly difficult film to write about. Instead of attempting to make some grand statement about the film as a whole, I’ve opted for dissecting the work and highlighting each of its wondrous parts in turn.

“It is a restless moment.”

What may be most immediately striking about In the Mood for Love – and perhaps somewhat confusing for first-time viewers – is how Wong handles the passage of time. Especially in the film’s first twenty minutes or so as Wong introduces his characters and their initial relation to each other, time moves quickly. And, moments in between the meetings of new neighbors Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) and Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) are omitted entirely – an early scene of Chan (also known as Su Li-zhen) and Chow inquiring about apartment vacancies immediately cuts to both of them moving in next door to each other, and later Su learns of Chow’s illness and makes a soup for him, only for Wong to cut to their next interaction when Chow has clearly been well for a few days and thanks her for her kindness. The narrative decision is a bold one for the possibility of losing his audience, but it follows in the steps of both Hou Hsiao-hsien and Abbas Kiarostami – two other ‘90s greats who challenged their viewers to a greater depth of participation in their work. Too, by eliminating nearly every event in the story without Su or Chow, Wong firmly establishes the film as theirs. From the beginning, we know that the story will exclusively concern these two strangers since he also chooses never to show either of their spouses’ faces.

Time itself plays a significant role in the film as well. Though chronicling the lives of modern urbanites in the years leading up to the landmark handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China became Wong’s calling card as the twentieth century came to a close – the back-to-back companion pieces Chungking Express and Fallen Angels – harkening back to the city in the ‘60s suits the director like a glove. Wong returns to the time period of his breakthrough Days of Being Wild, and while In the Mood for Love isn’t exactly a strict sequel, it shares not only two of that film’s major stars, but also several of its themes. Most specifically, In the Mood is explicitly concerned with time and its effects on these characters’ romance, and it pays direct homage to its predecessor as the camera repeatedly lingers on an extreme close-up of a hanging clock. A clock hung above the ticket booth where Maggie Cheung’s Su Li-zhen worked in Days, and a near replica hangs outside her character’s office in In the Mood.

The moment – no matter how restless – is crucial in Wong’s work, and time is certainly of the essence for Chow and Su as their mutual love grows while their cheating spouses are away. What will happen for the pair when they return? Will there be time to make a rational decision for the future of their relationship, if there is one? Time becomes their ally and their foe – at once, their love develops in moments spent together, and yet as those moments run out, the inevitability of bidding farewell looms over their weeks together. It makes In the Mood a wholly unique film that pulses with an urgency, yet slows down enough to cherish the moments that make their final departure that much more heartbreaking.

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“You notice things if you pay attention”

As Chow’s wife and Su’s husband begin spending longer nights at work or taking unexpected trips or sick leave, the lonely neighbors start to suspect infidelity. Both are directly confronted with the devastating secret – Chow catches his wife lying about working late, Su overhears Chow’s wife talking to her own husband in her apartment when she’s supposed to be home sick – but Wong cleverly reveals the spouses’ affair through clues that both his characters and audience can follow. Su and Chow soon recognize accessories – handbags, ties – on the other’s partner that suspiciously resemble items of their own given by their husband or wife. This careless gift-giving practice is then mirrored in the dangerous game Su’s boss plays as he balances a wife and kids with a needy mistress. When Su’s husband travels to Japan for work, he picks up two articles of clothing in different colors for the boss’ two lovers. The farce is kept up seemingly harmlessly until the man’s deceit hits Su close to home. The neighbors, then, are first brought together at an expertly executed dinner sequence where the pair dances around the truth both have uncovered separately that devolves into acceptance and defeat.

Wong handles the film’s first third concerning this discovery with finesse. These scenes are exquisitely edited, adhering to his aforementioned passing of time motif, swiftly building to the inevitable reveal, yet pausing long enough for remarkable slow motion sequences highlighting this pair’s loneliness and eventual meeting. Nearing the dinner scene when Chow and Su admit what they already privately fear, Su indirectly cautions her unfaithful boss that “you notice things when you pay attention.” She is, of course, referring both to his unwise decision of sporting a new tie from his mistress to his wife’s birthday dinner and to the discovery of her own husband’s affair, but she may well have been speaking to the audience. Wong’s film is a stylistic masterpiece; and it requires only one viewing for its striking visuals to embed themselves in the memory, yet demands repeat viewings to catch every dazzling flourish. It’s at once a film of vibrant colors – Su’s plethora of intricately patterned dresses, the deep red curtains and flowery wallpaper of the hotel, the orange hue of the lamp-lit brick alleyways – and one bathed in haunting shadows and dimly lit streets. It’s a film of captivating camera movements and flashy editing – the quick track back and forth between Chow and Su dining at a restaurant, Su’s indecision regarding meeting Chow at a hotel captured through rapid fire editing as she races up and down the stairs in her clicking heels – and one that appropriately slows its pace to allow us to take it all in – the beautiful slow motion shots of billowing cigarette smoke or the sensuous movements of Su going out for noodles, the twin freeze frames of Chow and Su escaping down the hotel hallway. The images Wong captures cannot so easily be forgotten.

“I wonder how it began?”

In the Mood for Love takes a turn for the truly unexpected following the life-altering dinner as the pair becomes curious about how their spouses’ love affair began. In another instance of narrative misdirection, several of the scenes in this portion of the film open with the suggestion of an attraction growing between these scorned partners only for Wong to impressively subvert our expectations time and again as it’s revealed that the pair is merely role-playing. From the beginning of their friendship of convenience, they actively attempt to understand how and why their spouses ran into the arms of another. They mimic flirtatious banter and gestures but wind up accusing the other’s spouse of initiating the immoral relationship. They pretend to be the adulterous couple as they increasingly dine out together, but they accept unfamiliar tastes in food as a bizarre commitment to these roles. Later, when they cast aside these pretenses, the acting continues but the roles change – Chow plays Su’s husband as she practices confronting him about his affair, and when the expiry of their new relationship approaches, they even practice saying goodbye.

Not only is this aspect of the story a refreshing take on the cheating lovers scenario, it also serves Wong’s overarching themes of emotional longing and loneliness in the city. The people populating Wong’s cinema are typically melancholy individuals severely lacking something that they oftentimes cannot even place. Days of Being Wild’s Yuddy bounces from woman to woman in search of fulfillment, Chungking Express’ Cop 223 and snack bar attendant Faye both long for someone they hardly know, Fallen Angels’ hit man wanders the darkened streets of Hong Kong as a cold-blooded killer intentionally alienated from other human beings, and Happy Together’s ill-fated pair of lovers submits to a disastrous relationship in order to evade loneliness. And yet, Wong merely scratched the surface of emotional isolation in his mighty oeuvre prior to the apex of his exploration in In the Mood. Chow and Su are given a concrete reason for their sorrow following the revelation of their spouses’ infidelity, but even before they become aware, In the Mood is a portrait of lonely souls. Su prefers the company of the movie theater to her lively landlords who repeatedly and kindly invite her to join them for dinner or games. Chow intentionally works late and loses himself in his writing just to pass the time. Neither one goes out of their way to get to know their neighbors until they must. Su and Chow are the embodiment of loneliness, and this yearning for deeper companionship propels them toward the romance they never could have anticipated.

“We won’t be like them.”

And yet, as romantic feelings creep up on this pair unexpectedly, they vow early on that they won’t be like their spouses. At first, there are moral reasons, and neither one presumably loves his or her partner any less upon learning of the affair. And, neither one initially makes any plans to separate or divorce. But, when it becomes clear this affair is unlikely to fade, their vow becomes a point of pride – they can carry on a platonic relationship of their own, but they won’t stoop to the immorality of their spouses. This innocuous union encounters problems when their friendship comes under the weight of societal pressure. They may be proud of their refusal to become lovers, but they tiptoe around their neighbors and coworkers nonetheless. In one telling scene, Su gets stuck in Chow’s room while helping him write a martial arts serial. His landlords come home early and engage Su’s landlords in a days-long game of mahjong. Later, Chow moves out and into a hotel for fear of what people might say about their time spent together. And, eventually Su cuts back on their time when her landlady Mrs. Suen (Rebecca Pan) scolds her for staying out too late while her husband is away. Even if desire sneaks its way into their friendship, it seems their environment is bent on stifling it.

But the feelings remain. Their rhetoric assures them of their commitment, but when the prospect of Chow following a job to Singapore arises, the pair finds they can no longer deny the love that has grown unknowingly between them. Now, it seems, they finally understand how it began. And yet, In the Mood for Love boasts a strikingly singular romance for it’s also a portrait of unconsummated love. Yes, they’ve fallen in love as their spouses once did, but rather than become lovers, they heart-achingly decide to separate. It’s a poignant and challenging picture of love for an age saturated in sex, when the act has become synonymous with the feelings and covenant of love itself. Some viewers insist that Chow and Su do eventually sleep together (most argue following Su’s line “I don’t want to go home tonight” as they prepare to say goodbye), but I find this interpretation at odds with the film’s overall themes and its tragic denouement. Alas, Wong allows some sort of ambiguity leaving us to wonder, did they or didn’t they? It’s yet another layer of significant depth Wong adds to this tale of love and loss. Can they remain unlike them? Chow and Su hope so, but in the end the secret is buried in the walls of an ancient temple

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“If there was an extra ticket, would you go with me?”

Over the course of the film, Wong convinces us to fall in love with this couple just as they fall in love, but he never promises resolve. Their romance hangs in the balance for the entirety of the film, but we root for it nonetheless. This is in large part due to the atmosphere Wong creates within In the Mood for Love. Repetition plays a crucial role throughout the film, and in returning to the same settings and music Wong establishes a sacred space and sound for their relationship. The rustic alleyway below their apartment building, the greasy noodle stand, and the claustrophobic hotel room become the repositories of their memories. And, the two repeated pieces of music – “Yumeji’s Theme” composed by Shigeru Umebayashi and “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas” performed by Nat King Cole – become the soundtrack to their blossoming romance. As long as the two songs play, there is yet a chance that Chow and Su might one day be together (tellingly, “quizas” translates to “perhaps”). Constancy leads to familiarity, and Wong gently envelops us in the love story he’s unveiling.

If much of the success of In the Mood’s emotive power is owed to Wong’s storytelling, then it must be shared with the solid performances of its two leads. Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung turn career-high performances as lovers who fall in love by accident. The subtlety and grace with which they approach their craft (not only here, but in most of their work – especially when collaborating with Wong) makes us believe what we’re seeing. It’s impossible to remain unaffected when Su’s determined features give way to a blank stare then a mess of tears as she practices confronting her husband – captured in an extended take relying on the contortion of Cheung’s face and no dialogue – or when, in close-up, Chow reasons Su will not likely visit him as he waits for her at the hotel. Cheung and Leung are a commanding presence on screen, but it’s never out of histrionics or sheer star power, but always from honest-to-goodness acting.

When Chow decides to leave his wife and escape to Singapore, it either marks the end or the beginning of a relationship with Su. If she comes, as he hopes she does, there they will no longer have to worry about becoming like their spouses for their love can start anew. And if she stays, both understand it will be goodbye for good. It’s the most significant moment in Wong’s film – the decision to carry their romance to its logical, hopeful conclusion or to allow it to become but a memory engraved in the past. Since Wong is neither romantic nor sentimentalist, it should come as no surprise that when Su chooses to stay in Hong Kong – even with two late-film almost-but-too-late moments of potential meetings – it is the end of an era for this tale of unconsummated love.

“That era has passed.”

Chow returns from Singapore and visits his old apartment, and even though the audience knows that Su once again lives behind the doors of her old place, it’s too late now. Wong assures us that that era has passed for the once near-lovers. Chow pauses in front of Su’s door but continues on. But, instead of ending the film here, Wong cuts to another remote, tropical location. Chow is now in Siem Reap, Cambodia amongst the ruins of the mighty Angkor Wat. His reasons for traveling specifically here are unknown, but his intentions surface as he whispers into a large hole in one of the walls’ surfaces, alluding to a comment from earlier in the film. We never hear what he speaks into the silence, but one can only presume that it is nothing short of a confession of undying love to Su Li-zhen, perhaps the woman he loved the deepest, yet never knew so intimately. There’s a notable shift in the film’s style as Chow stuffs his secret in the stone crevice. Long tracking shots of the hollow corridors of this ancient temple replace the kinetic camera movements of the rest of the film, and beautiful new music plays in place of the pair’s former anthem. The solitary, forlorn strings of Michael Galasso’s piece are an inversion of “Yumeji’s Theme” suggesting once and for all that their love is of the past. It’s a haunting, heart-breaking, beautiful sequence. And, even though In the Mood for Love’s finale is devastating in its implication, it remains one of the finest portraits of love captured as a brief moment in time. Nothing lasts forever, but as long as the memory remains, the story is worth revisiting again and again and again.

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The Assassin

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(Dir. Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan/China, 2015)

Killer Style

An eight-year silence is quite long for a filmmaker who hasn’t gone more than four without releasing a new film over the past three decades. And, with an oeuvre that boasts such titles as A Time to Live, a Time to Die, A City of Sadness, The Puppetmaster, Flowers of Shanghai, and Flight of the Red Balloon, adoring audiences might forgive the man if his glory days are a thing of the past. Over the past thirty years, master of the medium Hou Hsiao-hsien has delivered poignant coming-of-age dramas, crafted compelling historical sagas chronicling Taiwan’s rich recent history, allowed his formalist aesthetic to steadily evolve, and documented modern urban malaise while offering a heartwarming antidote. Now, after over thirty years of work, he turns to one of the world’s oldest genres of fiction: the Chinese wuxia, more commonly referred to as a sub-category of martial arts stories in the West. His latest, the long-gestating The Assassin, is an exercise in genre filmmaking – which on the surface does seem unusual considering Hou’s status as an art film festival staple – yet fortunately affirms that this artist remains one of the world’s greatest living filmmakers. To this ardent fan’s delight, The Assassin is one of his finest yet.

There are famous filmmakers who built their careers on translating wuxia from page to screen – King Hu and Chang Cheh – and those who have dabbled in the genre once or twice – Wong Kar-wai, Ang Lee, and Zhang Yimou. And, while the films of the former are typically held in higher regard – The One-Armed Swordsman, Dragon Gate Inn, A Touch of Zen – the works of the latter three are probably better known today. There’s no denying the impact of Lee’s Oscar-winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Zhang’s equally popular Hero, but Hou’s inspiration here runs deeper than wuxia-flavored films arguably marketed for Western consumption. (This is not to suggest either is therefore a poor film; Lee’s crowd-pleaser still holds up and Zhang’s is at least pretty to look at.) Instead, Hou draws from the genre’s literary roots adapting an early short story about a princess turned assassin for his passion project, a film the director claims he’s wanted to make since the beginning of his career. Not surprisingly, The Assassin is more than just a worthy entry in the history of cinematic wuxia; it represents another leap forward in its creator’s art and furthers the overarching optimism new to his cinema as of his last feature Flight of the Red Balloon.

It goes without saying at this point that Hou’s cinema is demanding. It demands that his viewer watch closely and carefully, not only to bask in the beauty of the filmmaker’s rigorous aesthetic – few filmmakers today match his sheer mastery of the craft, an unrivaled attention to detail and an apparent sixth sense with regards to staging and camera placement – but also to ascertain what exactly transpires over the course of the film. The Assassin’s narrative is deliberately obscure, but never frustratingly so. It’s more a puzzle to be solved with details of family relations and character motivations revealed through dialogue or inference. Hou has famously wielded this form of storytelling before – to this writer, A City of Sadness remains the pinnacle of cinematic elliptical narration – but applied to the wuxia genre, it’s unexpectedly captivating. The opaque narrative serves to underscore the veiled thoughts, emotions, and motives of the film’s stoic central figure. Hou, then, has perhaps created one of the screen’s finest lone warriors in recent memory. Shu Qi’s titular killer is at first impenetrable to the audience, but only after careful observation do we discover what drives her to kill and ultimately what moves her to spare life. The result is an affecting portrait of an isolated figure at the crossroads of vengeance and heroics.

It’s no surprise that the bulk of the narrative concerns a web of complicated family ties. The story wrestles with the deadly Nie Yinniang’s duty to her family as much, if not more so than, her duty to her mission. That mission – to return to her home province to assassinate a hot-tempered local ruler – sets the film in motion. The ruler in question, however, happens to be Yinniang’s cousin Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen) to whom she was once betrothed. In a stunning black and white prelude, we learn that this assignment serves as a punishment from her ruthless master Jiaxin (Fang-Yi Sheu) for failing to eliminate another official in front of his son. “I couldn’t bring myself to do it,” she confesses, bent before her master. The severe consequences for her merciful actions lead her to the house of her childhood and the pervading uncertainty of whether or not she will fulfill her mission.

The majority of the film takes place here in the province of Weibo as Yinniang contemplates her past and permanently altering her family’s future. Throughout, we discover a haunting connection between Yinniang and her deceased aunt who was the mother of her cousin and twin sister to her master, a strained relationship between the woman and her disapproving father, residual feelings between cousins once betrothed, and a love triangle between Tian Ji’an, his wife from a neighboring clan, and his mistress that not only causes tension in their home but between clans that endangers Yinniang’s banished uncle. Each of these various subplots orbits around the film’s central narrative core adding intrigue and strengthening Hou’s picture of life in 8th century China under the Tang Dynasty. The makings of high melodrama in another filmmaker’s hands become yet another opportunity for Hou to flex his self-proclaimed un-Hollywoodesque style of storytelling. Moments of narrative revelation are visual wonders in The Assassin – a sudden switch in aspect ratio and film stock to signify a character’s memory, a miraculously captured meteorological phenomenon of swirling fog that corresponds to our protagonist’s inner turmoil, a duplicitous character’s identity revealed after the forced removal of her mask, a late-film fantastical turn that symbolizes a fateful clash of clans.

In the film’s best scene, Hou invites us into a private rendezvous between Tian Ji’an and his mistress Huji (Hsieh Hsin-Ying) as much of his and Yinniang’s shared past is revealed in dialogue. The frame flickers with glowing candlelight as a thin veil billows across the screen with the wind. Hou cuts to Yinniang lurking in the shrouds, framed by swaying curtains. The scene is intoxicating and distractingly beautiful with the room bathed in a hazy color palette of deep red and glimmering gold. This short segment rivals anything in his dazzling Flowers of Shanghai. (It should be mentioned that this film marks some of DP Mark Lee Ping Bin’s very best work.) It’s only upon a second viewing that one might realize the scene’s narrative significance. Likewise, much has been made – and rightfully so – of The Assassin’s fight sequences. Expertly choreographed swordplay is a hallmark of wuxia films, and Hou’s film is no exception. It may be short on prolonged action, but its fights are undoubtedly exhilarating. Almost every one of them occurs unexpectedly, juxtaposed with sequences of tranquility or languid pacing. These bursts of dueling foes feature unprecedented cutting within a scene and rapid-fire editing, a move Hou claims was pragmatic given the lack of martial arts skills of his performers. Either way, the sequences are incredible and unlike anything else in his body of work thus far.

To catch every detail of Hou’s meticulously designed set pieces, gorgeously shot scenery, or his intricately woven story, the film demands repeat viewings. I suspect it’s a work that grows richer with each subsequent viewing, more than likely a future classic of the genre and favorite of his canon. If its stunning imagery and engrossing narrative weren’t enough, Hou’s film transcends the very genre trappings it channels in its protagonist’s late-film decision to spare her cousin’s life. In the beginning, she confessed that she couldn’t bring herself to kill as if mercy was a sin, but in the end she defiantly claims, “I chose not to,” and turns her back on her former master. She returns to a village on the outskirts of Weibo and fulfills a promise to escort two travelers to a far-off province. The assassin has become a guardian. Violence bows to mercy, and a trained killer uses her unmatched skills to guide and protect rather than kill. It’s a beautifully hopeful finale, and one that offers a fresh perspective on the typically dour stories of ruined or defeated heroes of most wuxia films. If the great Hou Hsiao-hsien can deliver this kind of masterstroke this late in his career, it give us devoted faithful hope that maybe his best is still yet to come.

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Spring in a Small Town

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(Dir. Fei Mu, China, 1948)

To Be or Not to Be Happy

Often considered the greatest Chinese language film of all time, Fei Mu’s pre-Revolution domestic drama Spring in a Small Town still lives up to its reputation to this day though it suffers some – as so many films from smaller pockets of international cinema do – from limited distribution and a desperate need for proper restoration. It’s classic narrative cinema that finds its filmmaker fittingly exploring the tension between societal norms and personal happiness as his nation teeters on the brink of a massive political and cultural shift. Interestingly, the Communist takeover also saw the new leftist majority reject Fei’s film, and it remained shunned for decades. Perhaps the film’s central concern regarding individual choices while the nation as a whole moved toward an extreme form of collectivism accounts for its initial poor reception.

Despite the Communist disapproval, Fei’s Spring in a Small Town is actually remarkably objective in its approach. It’s one of the film’s greatest strengths that it recognizes and agonizes with the parties involved in its central conflict, but it never attempts to push either side. Whether the lonely housewife Yuwen (Wei Wei) remains adherent to moral tradition by remaining unhappily married to her husband Liyan (Shi Yu) or pursues a new life of potential happiness with her former love Zhichen (Li Wei), Fei’s film appears ultimately unconcerned. Instead, he seeks to navigate the turbulent emotions of his four leads and reveal how this unlikely circumstance changes each of them. Yuwen’s is the film’s primary voice, and we are introduced to her first. She lives a quiet life with her invalid husband and his younger sister Xiu (Zhang Hongmei) on his family’s crumbling estate in the country. Through her voiceover narration, we learn of her unhappiness and the loveless marriage she has with her distant husband. “I have no courage to die, and he has no courage to live,” she intones as if resigned to the despairing life she leads.

Matters are complicated when Liyan’s childhood friend Zhichen unexpectedly comes to visit. They haven’t seen each other in ten years, and when this patriarch introduces his guest to his wife, we learn that Yuwen and Zhichen were once lovers before she met Liyan. He stays for some time, as feelings once thought lost are unearthed in both Yuwen and Zhichen who clearly never stopped loving each other. Yuwen is torn between her duty to her husband, and Zhichen agonizes over his close friendship with Liyan. Meanwhile, Xiu takes a liking to this visitor, and Liyan sees an opportunity to marry off his little sister to a family friend. Though Fei provides ample screen time to each of these four for us to understand and care for them, the film’s voice remains with Yuwen throughout. Cleverly, her subjective thought processes grow into a form of omniscient narration as her voice provides exposition for portions of the story when she is not present. This gives the film a welcome literary quality that seeks to uncover each of these characters in turn, but insists on maintaining a singular perspective through which we experience the events unfolding on screen.

In its story and theme, Spring in a Small Town is fondly reminiscent of Satyajit Ray’s superior Charulata released nearly two decades later. It’s difficult to ascertain if Fei’s film provided inspiration for Ray’s, but the similarities are unmistakable. As with that great film, one of Spring’s finest attributes lies in its refusal to give this story a villain. Yuwen’s husband is never abusive or harsh with her, thus his character offers no easy answer to Yuwen’s crucial decision to stay or leave. And, while Charu’s husband is likewise no villain either, his sin resides in his obliviousness to his own wife’s suffering. In contrast, Yuwen’s husband not only suspects her unhappiness, he nearly expects it given the state of his health and their subsequent lifeless union. In this way, Fei casts Liyan in just as much a sympathetic light as Yuwen. This good-natured quality that each of his characters possesses only intensifies the struggle for them and us as deeply invested viewers.

In the end, Liyan’s self-preserving decision to commit suicide precipitates the inevitable decision Yuwen and Zhichen know they must make. Zhichen is able to resuscitate his friend, and Yuwen comes face to face with what her personal desires may have caused. Yuwen decides to stay with and nurse her husband back to health, and Zhichen determines to leave the following day. Though this outcome is a bit expected, a brief scene included prior to the finale is refreshingly unexpected, and is perhaps one of the film’s greatest. Xiu leaves her brother’s room where he is recovering and finds Yuwen waiting outside. She encourages her sister-in-law not to worry too much, but then abruptly asks her if she and Zhichen are in love. Yuwen bursts into tears and nods. No sooner these women are in each other’s arms, consoling one another and perhaps even sympathizing with the other’s position. It’s a remarkably human ending for these characters. No switch flipped within Yuwen to automatically make her love Liyan instead of Zhichen, but she ultimately chooses duty over her own happiness. This short sequence conveys just how difficult that decision can truly be. Fei delivers an optimistic conclusion, if not necessarily heartwarming, for his characters. Xiu sees Zhichen off to the train station, and he promises to return the following year. Yuwen and Liyan stand side by side for the first time atop the city’s wall watching their guest depart. There is likely mutual understanding, but there also seems to be a glimpse of a commitment that these two share to work toward improving their situation. Happiness comes from what we choose to make of our circumstances, after all, and for this married couple, things might not be as hopeless as they once thought.

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