The Village of No Return (Chen Yu-hsun, 2017)

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Settling down for Village of No Return I was expecting another mediocre Chinese genre film, an effects driven action comedy along the lines of Vampire Cleanup Department or Mojin: The Lost Legend, amiable thanks to a star turn from Shu Qi and a supporting role by Eric Tang, but ultimately weightless. Instead, it’s one of the cleverest films of the year, a sly satire on the rapid transformations of 20th century Chinese society and the changes they require in collective memory. Some three years after the end of the Qing Dynasty, a huckster arrives in a small village toting a myserteous device which he claims can eliminate worries. He tries it out on a few people, eliminating memories and gradually has erased the entire town’s minds, installing himself as their beloved leader and ordering them to dig all over town for hidden treasure. Shu Qi is one of the townspeople, the daughter of the former chief who has been forced into a marriage so distasteful she has to be chained to the house when her husband leaves town. The huckster frees her (after she kinda of murdered her husband) but then washes her brain into marrying him. But as she starts to figure out his scheme, a gang of bandits which includes her long lost love shows up to destroy the village at the behest of Eric Tsang, who wants to level it to build a railroad. The movie takes a while to build up steam, but once everything is in place it unfolds with unexpected and fascinating twists, with an ending far more ambivalent than it appears.

The village is mostly a collection of grotesques, venal and stupid, with the exception of a kung fu master who can’t fight because of some past trauma (the action scene he eventually gets is a highlight, an expert transposition of comic book style posing within a fight sequence). The bandits are more interesting, led by a woman who moonlights as a mail-carrier (she wears the old Qing style uniform), they’re more of an a capella group than a gang of killers, and their singing magnifies the film’s oddball yet weirdly traditional charms. Everything about the design of the memory-stealing device is delightful, from its mechanical seahorses to the animated proscenium which appears framing the black and white silent movie images of a person’s memory. The seahorses are a callback to director Chen You-hsun’s 2012 short Hippocamp Hair Salon, which was about a salon that could wash away unpleasant memories (clearly the fungibility of memory is something about which Chen has strong feelings). I saw it as part of the 10+10 shorts program, which tasked ten young Taiwanese directors and ten veterans (Hou Hsiao-hsien, Sylvia Chang, etc) with each making a five minute film. Chen’s film was one of the highlights, and Village of No Return follows through on that project’s promise.

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Jiang Wen’s Gone with the Bullets

 

So Jiang Wen made a Wong Jing movie. . .

I saw the Thai DVD, which is the first version I’ve seen that has English subtitles. The running time is 119 minutes. Wikipedia and IMDB give it a running time of 140 minutes, with a 120 minute international cut, while Screen Daily‘s review from the Berlin Film Festival says it’s 134 minutes. I have no idea what’s been removed for this international cut, but I doubt the added footage would make the movie any more or less coherent.

Jiang plays a conman in 1920s Shanghai. In an opening parody of the first scene of The Godfather, he agrees to help the youngest son of the local warlord general launder his money. To do so, he spends it all on an extravagant pageant to crown the Best Hooker in Shanghai, complete with musical numbers (“a song so new Mr. Gershwin won’t even write it for ten years!”), fireworks, live radio coverage around the world and Shu Qi offering to sleep with 30 rich men in 30 nights and give all her proceeds to the poor. Shortly thereafter, she proposes to Jiang (they are old friends and lovers), he tries to talk her out of it in a melange of artificial sets and dizzying cutting (every line gets its own shot, the effect of which, given the screwball pace of the exchanges, is something like watching a Baz Luhrmann movie on amphetamines), culminating in an opium dreams of a wild musical car trip. The morning after, Shu Qi is dead and Jiang spends the rest of the movie on the run, accused of her murder.

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VIFF 2015: Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin


If you wanted to design to film perfectly and specifically for me, it would probably be something like The Assassin. A film by my favorite contemporary filmmaker, one from whom I spent months earlier this year studying and writing about in detail for a theatrical retrospective, working in one of my favorite film genres, the one I’ve spent the better part of the last three years exploring. There was simply no way this wasn’t going to be a movie I liked. But since whether a critic likes a film or not is easily the least interesting aspect of any decent review, thankfully that task is quickly disposed with and we can proceed to more interesting concerns, the what and why of the film. Hou Hsiao-hsien’s latest, his first film since 2007’s Flight of the Red Balloon, is set in the late Tang Dynasty period, starring Shu Qi as a young woman who returns home after ten years as a killer-in-training to wreak vengeance on the local ruler. The film follows a typical wuxia plot structure, with motivations gradually revealed and complicated, schemes exposed, punctuated by regularly occurring fight sequence set-pieces. But Hou has adapted that structure to his own unique rhythm, presenting a languid, patient narrative of long takes exploring lush sets and landscapes. It’s the stillest action movie there’s ever been.
In tone the closest analogue in Hou’s previous work might be Millennium Mambo, a hypnotic film that could seemingly spin on forever. Right up until the director’s credit came on screen, I kept expecting another hour of narrative. I had no idea how much time was passing, or what the shape of the story was, until it ended. This is one of the distinct pleasures of some of Hou’s best work, from The Time to Live, The Time to Die to Goodbye South Goodbye to Flight of the Red Balloon. Looked at in total, however, the plot could easily be that of a late 70s Chor Yuen film (but not at all a Chang Cheh film, for a number of reasons, the gender of the protagonist and the ultimate optimism of the work first among them). It’s just that Hou refuses to match the pace of the film to the complexity of the story. He teases out exposition in long dialogue scenes, but shoots those scenes with such intricate beauty that it’s hard to pay attention to the words being spoken when the pictures are so fascinating. An example: a long, central scene between Chang Chen’s governor (the target of the assassination plot) and his favorite concubine explains much of the Shu Qi character’s past and the volatile tangle of competing interests that lead to his family breaking off Chang’s engagement with Shu in favor of another woman, a humiliation which lead to Shu’s exile. It also demonstrates the bond between Chang and the concubine, which motivates a further complication in the plot, as Chang’s wife has a murderous scheme of her own. But rather than the actors, who form a loving triangle in the center middle distance of the frame and remain mostly still, our eye is drawn to the edges of the frame. The left is dominated by a line of three flames, reflections of candle lights that appear to have no on-screen referent; the right by a curtain that billows in and out throughout the scene, blown by a similarly unsourced wind, shrouding the actors in gauze when it blows in, revealing them in crystal clarity when it blows out. You get so lost in the image, it’s easy to miss the thread of the plot.

But plot there is (this is not, as my pal Neil so tweeted, a film “about a bunch of veils and curtains”). Hou’s films, from The Boys from Fengkuei on, have a distinctly languid place, regardless of how much actually occurs in the narrative. Flowers of Shanghai is an opium dream of a film, one in which there’s almost no dramatic action, a fair amount in dialogue and a torrent of emotional churning under the surface. A City of Sadness is a multi-layered, multi-character historical epic. Millennium Mambo and The Puppetmaster are narrated tales, one about the entropic life of a club girl in modern Taipei, the other a 50 year biopic about a man caught up in the sweep of history. In mood and pace the films are the same, with long single take scenes of apparently mundane and occasionally inexplicable behavior drawing us into the feel of the protagonists’ world, an effect amplified by the highly subjective nature of the narration. That subjectivity is the essential element in all of Hou’s films, as he is ever seeking to capture an individual’s experience of the world, and to inspire a deep empathy in the audience. His films eliminate any sense of moral judgment: whatever bad or dumb things his heroes may do, he doesn’t allow us any distance from them. We are inside them, left to understand their lives as they do. The Assassin is no different in this respect. Its dense plot of maneuvering factions in the present inspired by the secret schemes of the past is revealed slowly, like Flowers almost entirely in dialogue. Our identification with Shu Qi’s hero is established in a new way, however. Rather than linger over lengthy shots of Shu at work or in repose, as in Mambo, we instead observe things as she is observing them. Not strictly from her point of view, but often Hou will show us a long scene of character interaction only to cut at the end to Shu observing silently from some hiding spot (invisibly ninja-style in the rafters, for example). Her motivations remain opaque through the length of the film, right up until the very end we don’t really know what she wants or how she plans to go about achieving it. Of course, when that “Directed By” credit does appear on-screen, everything makes perfect sense.

What she ends up achieving is a bold rejection of the traditional wuxia narrative, the first major development in the genre in decades. This century’s art house wuxia films have all taken the form of homage, usually to King Hu. A mix of spectacular and (more importantly perhaps) spectacularly shot action with a bit of Buddhism and above all a devotion to a code of honor that demands personal unhappiness, films like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, House of Flying Daggers and The Grandmaster follow the strictly established rules of the genre, which itself is as old as cinema and reaches back through centuries of Chinese literature. For all their technical facility, they remain merely highly polished variations on Hu’s work from the 1970s, while lacking the sense of experimentation that makes films like A Touch of Zen or Legend of the Mountain so unfathomable to this day. There hasn’t really been anything new in the genre since Hu’s titanic pair of of Legend of the Mountain and Raining in the Mountain in 1979. That is, until now (unless you count Tsui Hark’s various variations on the genre, which add to the traditional form outlandish special effects, breath-taking speed and an anarchic wit. At their core, though, they’re still traditional narratives). Obviously in adapting his highly idiosyncratic style to the genre, Hou was bound to come up with something interesting. But I’m surprised at how much he actually bent his career-long aesthetic. In The Assassin, Hou cuts within a scene, he uses different film stocks and aspect ratios (it’s all in the archaic 1.33 ratio (which emphasizes the verticality of traditional Chinese painting, the influence of which is felt strongly in the landscape scenes, aided immeasurably by the natural beauty of China’s landscapes and fortuitous fogs rolling in to mimic the vast negative spaces so distinctive in that art form), like last year’s Horse Money and Jauja, but for two flashback shots, on slightly grainier film stock, which are 1.85, possibly to accommodate the shape of a long musical instrument), he has insert shots, and the camera moves into the frame, all techniques he’d abandoned 30 years ago when he moved from mainstream romantic comedies into art house minimalism. But as the demands of wuxia changed Hou, so did Hou change wuxia. There are fight scenes in The Assassin, but they are quick. Elegant and brief, they are over before the heroes of a Lau Kar-leung film would be even a little bit warmed-up. The de-emphasis on action is vital: Shu Qi is an assassin who rejects assassination, a wuxia knight-errant who rejects the world of violence, the jianghu. She rejects everything that defines a wuxia hero: the whole Confucian edifice of blind obedience to ones master, of defining honor as the strict following of a code that has little to do with morality or even common sense, the reification of abstract concepts over basic human happiness (the film also enacts a recurring opposition in Hou’s work, that of the country and city, as Shu leaves the lushly ornate interiors of imperial life for the rough open skies of the country and an itinerant village existence). The fact that she’s a woman isn’t especially unusual, there have been female warriors in wuxia stories for centuries, and they’ve been consistently represented on-screen. But usually they behave exactly the same as the male characters, while occasionally falling victim to romantic desires as well. Shu avoids the tragic fate of a Zhang Ziyi character by doing something Zhang never could, despite the obvious evils or inhumanity of her various masters. Shu, in explicitly rejecting everything the wuxia ethos stands for, turns the wuxia hero from a tragic figure into a truly inspirational one. She’s the first one I’ve ever seen that actually succeeds in reinventing the world, in making it a more perfect place.

Running Out of Karma: Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons


I see a lot of complaints that this, the latest from Stephen Chow, is “no Kung Fu Hustle (or Shaolin Soccer)” which, yeah sure, it’s a different kind of movie than those. Those were the culmination of 15 years of Chow’s comedy style, which burst on the scene in the early 90s with a string of smash comedies, built around lowest common denominator wordplay and slapstick parodies of popular genres (gambling movies with All for the Winner, cop movies with Fight Back to School, wuxia films with the Royal Tramp and Chinese Odyssey films, among many others (including a couple contentious collaborations with Johnnie To). Chow was arguably the biggest Hong Kong star of the 1990s, and Kung Fu Hustle in particular is a masterpiece, the pinnacle of the kung fu parody, driven by CGI to fully realize the live-action Looney Tunes-quality this era of Hong Kong comedy always strived for.

Journey to the West though has entirely different ambitions. It’s still quite funny of course, and like most contemporary Hong Kong (or Hong Kong/Chinese, the various industries are increasingly intertwined) it is driven by special effects, most of which look quite good, and action. But building on the somewhat rote spiritualism of Kung Fu Hustle, Chow, along with his co-director Derek Kwok and a host of co-writers, appears to be exploring Buddhism with some allegorical seriousness. Freely adapting one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese Literature, a work that has inspired numerous film adaptations, including the Chow-starring two-part 1995 film A Chinese Odyssey (written and directed by Jeffrey Lau) and the latest film from Taiwanese auteur Tsai Ming-liang, the film follows the growth of a young monk in training to be a demon-hunter. Played by Wen Zhang with an open earnestness very different from the cocky fools played by Chow in his prime, the young monk attempts not to destroy the demons, but rather rehabilitate them by freeing the good that he’s convinced still lies within them (Skywalker-style). Demon-hunting being something of a growth industry in troubled Tang Dynasty (circa 600s AD) China, he quickly finds himself with a rival, played by frequent Hou Hsiao-hsien star Shu Qi. She takes the opposite approach, using some magic rings and nifty combat moves to ensnare the demons, a task she proves much more adept at than Wen.

Shu Qi takes a liking to Wen, not because of his charm or handsomeness, but rather because she’s attracted to the purity of his motives. And, having taking a vow of celibacy, his refusal of her advances only convinces her further of his righteousness, turning her on even more. As they encounter a series of demons (a giant fish monster, then a serial-killing pig, finally the Monkey King himself), Shu Qi keeps trying to trick the monk into falling in love with her (or at least having sex with her), going so far as to set up an elaborate and bloody ruse (leading to one of the film’s best recurring gags as one of her henchman’s special effects goes awry). This episodic quest narrative, leavened with liberal amounts of outsized action and comedy and some truly inspired images (a demon-hunter with a notable foot, for one), is pleasant enough, but by the end of the film it becomes apparent that every episode has its role in the allegory Chow is building.

Each of the demons is a human who’s soul has been poisoned by tragedy, their perversions the direct result of desire and attachment. They are markers for the things the Buddhist must renounce in order to achieve enlightenment. The fish demon is after revenge on a village that wronged him in a horrible way. The pig demon was consumed by jealousy after his wife cheated on him. The Monkey King, greatest demon of them all, dared to defy Buddha himself in declaring war on heaven in a psychotic expression of personal freedom. They represent impulses the monk must rid himself of, negative desires that lead people to their own destruction. At the same time, Shu’s demon-hunter, who the monk has (chastely of course) come to love, comes to embody all that he must leave behind. Because enlightenment isn’t just about renouncing life’s negative impulses, it’s also about understanding loss and suffering, and you can’t understand loss if you don’t have something you love that you have to let go.

So, rather than building to the kind of anarchic extravaganza that culminated Chow’s best-known efforts, Journey to the West becomes increasingly serious has it goes along (not that there isn’t darkness throughout the film, as each of the demon episodes features some shocking horrors). It doesn’t follow the escalating structure of classic screwball and slapstick comedies, instead it follows the spiritual journey of its hero (similar to the path trod by King Hu’s A Touch of Zen) tracing an epic arc from grounded realism through increasing abstraction to a kind of transcendence. Kung Fu Hustle is a feint in this direction, as Chow’s hero ultimately masters kung fu and attains a kind of enlightenment, in a parody of traditional martial arts films like The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. But Journey to the West takes the ideology behind the generic form seriously and infuses it into its very structure. Chow plays it straight and the result is something I never expected: Stephen Chow’s Au hazard Balthazar.