F.I.L.M. of the Week (December 8, 2016)

8 12 2016

three-timesAfter the head-scratching experience of watch Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s “The Assassin,” which wowed me with resplendent visuals but baffled me with its labyrinthine plot, I wasn’t exactly eager to dig further back in the director’s canon – even in spite of the critical superlatives. It took a pre-show bumper card at this year’s New York Film Festival to convince me otherwise; Barry Jenkins cited Hou’s 2005 film “Three Times” as a major influence on “Moonlight.” So, naturally, I had to see what was up.

Turns out, “Three Times” is much more my style. No arcane knowledge of the Chinese wuxia genre is necessary to appreciate Hou’s craftsmanship. All it takes is some grasp of love and the frequent breakdown of communication when expressing it. This triptych of love stories between Shu Qi and Chang Chen is unique among films of its type – calling the connections between the three panels “thematic” doesn’t quite seem to grasp what Hou does here.

It’s as if the concept of love were a gemstone, and he shines a bright, pointed light at it from three different angles. Hou then delicately films the refractions, observing how this small shared moment between would-be lovers reflects back on the larger idea. The result is a tender but devastating work, one that easily rises to the level of  my “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

In all fairness, nothing tops the first segment of the film. In 1966, a Taiwanese soldier falls for a pool-hall attendant in a reserved fashion befitting their time. They express their passion to each other in epistolary fashion, and Hou magnificently films their quiet longing as these separated sweethearts yearn to consummate their connection. When the man undertakes an arduous, patient journey to reunite, it’s nothing short of sublime.

The other two sections have their charms and insights as well, to be sure. The middle portion, a fraught relation between a courtesan and political firebrand set in 1911, is staged in the style of a silent film – title cards and all. It’s a significantly less rosy look at love, one where backgrounds and baggage play a determining factor in limiting the choices available to the lovers. This is most interesting to consider in tandem with the film’s final portion, set in then-modern 2005, where text messages inhibit the expression of desire between a rock singer and her romantic partner, a photographer.

How much or how little one wishes to draw parallels between segments seems mostly left to the viewer’s discretion; for me, “Three Times” is best appreciated as three discrete stories with a loose thread tying each together. Finding that string is important. But tugging on it too much disrupts the delicate juxtaposition.

REVIEW: The Assassin

20 10 2015

The AssassinNew York Film Festival

I would be lying if I said I could explain all any of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s “The Assassin.” I am woefully unversed in Asian cinema, so much so that the term wuxia was something I had to frantically Wikipedia in my seat prior the film starting.  There’s a great tradition that this film is conversation with, a rich history of which I am almost entirely unaware.

So what to do watching – and subsequently reviewing – such a film?

I can only compare the experience to walking through an art gallery, in particular a curated collection.  The film’s emphasis is not necessarily to barrel through plot points but simply to achieve a delicate forward motion that propels constantly forward.  The cumulative effect is entrancing and beguiling, if not altogether breathtaking.

While taking in “The Assassin,” time does feel suspended, for better or for worse.  I felt trapped to take in Hou’s painterly compositions and wound up somewhat exhausted by the sheer saturation of stunning imagery.  My only somewhat intelligent observation at first glance is the way the film concerns violence but rarely depicts in a literal or graphic way.  Hou’s fight sequences manage to thrill and excite by letting us simply hear the slash of the sword and observe its human impact – not just relish in bloodshed.

Perhaps one day, after reading a book on the politics of 9th century Chinese provinces, I’ll reapproach “The Assassin” while also clutching a detailed plot summary and a character chart.  I am not such a fool that I can dismiss the obvious artistry at play here.  One day, I hope that I can reach a level of knowledge to where I can fully appreciate this esoteric piece of cinematic craftsmanship.  B+3stars