This film was screened several times in the Official Section at Leeds International Film Festival. The director, Hou Hsiao-hsien won the Best Director Award at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. This is a stunningly beautiful film. Note it opens in black and white and then changes to colour. And whilst the bulk of the film is in Academy ratio [1.37:1], there are two sequences (of only two shots each) in widescreen ratio [1.85:1] .
If you know the earlier films of Hou Hsiao-hsien, Three Times (2005) Zui hao de shi guang or The Puppetmaster (1993) Xi meng ren sheng, you will know what to expect. Some of the audience in the Victoria [Room at Leeds Town Hall] presumably were excepting a typical martial arts film: they left early. The UK marketing uses the martial arts genre in the publicity, which is a mistake. Apparently similar marketing and responses took place when the film received a mainstream release in China. This is a slow, artful film with a fairly opaque plotline: it has parallels in terms of plot with Hero (Ying xiong 2002). Moreover, for a western audience, I think it takes some time to identify the separate characters, especially when for much of the time they wear the formal clothing of the period. In addition the film moves around in different time periods, but without the usual signing of flashbacks.
How well you manage depends on the manner in which you view films. One friend managed most of the characters and plot at his first screening: impressive. I managed the basic characters and plot at my first screening but it was only the second time round that I followed the whole coherently. Another friend was a neither informed or impressed: and his complaint was about the paucity of subtitle information in English and the difficulties produced in identifying characters in the numerous long shots.
Rather than describe the plot, the main point of which is relatively simple, it may help to describe those I believe to be the main characters: (based on the descriptions on Wikipedia).
Shu Qi as Nie Yinniang, the eponymous assassin
Chang Chen as Tian Ji’an, cousin to Nie Yinniang, formerly betrothed to her, and military governor (Jiedushi), ruling Weibo Circuit.
Zhou Yun as Lady Tian, Tian Ji’an’s wife. (Belongs to family of a separate Provincial ruler.)
Satoshi Tsumabuki as the mirror polisher. (Unidentified by name, the character’s title action is easy to miss: he appears late in the film when there is an attack in woods and he comes to the rescue.)
Ethan Juan as Xia Jing, Tian Ji’an’s bodyguard
Hsieh Hsin-Ying as Huji ( her name means ‘orchid’), Tian Ji’an’s concubine and a dancer
Ni Dahong as Nie Feng, Nie Yinniang’s father and Tian Ji’an’s provost
Yong Mei as Nie Tian
Fang-Yi Sheu as Princess Jiacheng and her twin sister, the princess Jiaxin turned Taoist nun
And there is an older whiskered character who I believe is Jacques Picoux as Lady Tian’s teacher: he appears twice sitting in his study.
The opening segment of the film is in black and white Academy. This is a prelude to the main story and we meet two key characters; Yinniang and Jiaxin. Then the film changes to Academy colour. The setting in Weibo and the main characters here are carefully introduced. Whilst the plot deals mainly with a series of actions involving these characters, the context is tensions between the Imperial Court and provinces on the periphery, like Weibo, and who will exercise power. But there is also personal conflict, partly motivated by personal experiences from the past, and partly motivated by the power conflicts at the court and, from a distance, Imperial / provincial relations. The two sequences in New Academy seem to be a suggestion on a central metaphor of the film. We see a zither, an instrument that recurs the last time that we see Jiaxin, perhaps a confirmation of this.
For me the film holds ones attention completely: it was a pleasure to watch it twice. It has an immaculate mise en scène and a distinctive sound track. There are few of the action sequences beloved in martial art films. But there are many formal settings where what is left unsaid seems as potent as what is said. And there are also informal settings of personal interaction, but never really informal. The film uses decor, mirrors, light and shadow, candles and lanterns, gauzes and even smoke to offer settings with subtle variations. If the interiors tend to the strictly formal, there is something of the same sense in the exteriors, which are also beautifully captured.
One must pay compliments to the production team working under the director.
Music by Giong Lim
Cinematography by Ping Bin Lee
Film Editing by Chih-Chia Huang . . . (edited by)
Ching-Song Liao . . . (as Liao Ching-Sung) (editing director)
Production Design by Wen-Ying Huang
Costume Design by Wen-Ying Huang . . . (as Hwarng Wern-Ying)
Sound Department Shih Yi Chu . . . sound, Duu-Chih Tu . . . sound, Shu-yao Wu . . . sound
Special Effects by Ardi Lee . . . special effects
The camera work relies to a degree on long shots and fairly long takes. In both interiors and exteriors there is both deep focus and deep staging: there are lovely moments when an outline or a shadow emerges in deep field. The camera movements are varied but the most common are slow and slight dollies, with slow pans and tilts in interiors. And there are some fine tracking shots in the exteriors.
The editing is often elliptical, which can make for difficulties in following the developments, but this enables the film to draw the parallels between the complex interactions among characters. The soundtrack is also a treat. The music is sparse but very evocative. There is the slow playing of drums and percussion. There is zither music. And, over the end credits, some exhilarating music from flutes or bagpipes. But for much of the time we enjoy natural sound, including bird songs and cicadas.
And the production design is truly impressive. One review thought the film was ‘too pretty’. In fact, it is ornate, as it would seem were the Chinese courts of the period. The settings, especially the interiors, provide a great canvas for the cinematography.
Hou immersed himself in reading and research for the film. In quotes in the Festival Catalogue he notes the subtlety and complexity of the period.
“For example, there were different ways of taking a bath, depending on whether you were a wealthy merchant, a high official or a peasant. I also looked into the story’s political context in some detail. It was a chaotic period when the omnipotence of the Tang Court was threatened by provincial governors who challenged the authority of the Tang Emperor: some provinces even tried to secede from the Empire by force.”
We actually see the preparations for a royal bath. Reviews have tended to praise the style of the film, but some also express reservations about the plotting of the story and even the sheer physical attraction of the settings right through them film. The film though, focuses on a particular social segment, one with great wealth and privilege. And we only see the peasants mentioned by Hou briefly, though in an important sequence.
The film was shot on Kodak 35mm and has been transferred to DCP via 4K. However, I think most audiences in the UK will only be able to see it in 2K. Even so it does look and sound good. It runs for 107 minutes and crams a lot into that space.