Category: Chinese Cinema

The Assassin (Nie yin niang, France-Taiwan-China-HK 2015)


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.

Exit (Taiwan 2014)

Chen Tsai as Ling

Chen Shiang-Chyi as Ling

Released in UK cinemas by Facet Film in April and now out on DVD and online from iTunes and other services, Exit is a perfect example of an East Asian art film. The writer-director Chienn Hsiang has a reputation as a gifted cinematographer and the film’s central character is played by Chen Shiang-Chyi, best known for her roles with the auteur Tsai Ming-liang. Exit is clearly a cinematographer’s film. Every shot is beautifully composed – perfect for the meaning of the narrative. At the same time this is an actor’s film. Chen is on screen in virtually every shot and she completely inhabits the character of Ling, a 45 year-old woman living in a block of flats in Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s second city. When her daughter (who doesn’t seem close to her mother) returns to university in Taipei, Ling is alone – her husband is working in Shanghai but never answers his phone. Ling is employed as a seamstress in a small clothing workshop but this too is moving to Shanghai. She spends her spare time sitting with her non-communicative mother-in-law in hospital. The older woman is waiting for a hip replacement operation.

Ling’s loneliness is compounded by the fact that she has been told that she is entering early menopause. Without support from husband or daughter, the loss of her job is doubly damaging. Ling responds by trying to find new points of contact. A friend gives her a dance instruction video and in hospital she develops a wordless relationship with an injured man recovering in the same room as her mother-in-law.

From this brief plot outline it’s clear that this isn’t a date movie and it’s also true that it isn’t a plot-driven drama. Instead it’s a meticulous character study constructed with great care. Chienn has said that the underlying theme of employment moving to China is a major social issue in Taiwan and that he wrote the story after one day sitting on a bus and noticing what he termed a ‘middle-aged woman’. He created the character as one of those ‘left behind’ by the move to Shanghai. The notion that at 45 you are more or less finished as a social being if you don’t have family around or employment is disturbing. How much is this a function of the representations of women in East Asian films? I think many 45 year-old women in the UK would find this an offensive description with its suggestion that 45 is ‘old’. It might be interesting to compare Ling’s character and her story to that of the older but more adventurous woman in The Postmodern Life of My Aunt (China 2006) by Ann Hui. But perhaps Ling is very recognisable for Taiwanese audiences? I don’t know the answer to that question but I do recognise a fine performance. Chen Shiang-Chyi is a beautiful woman who is able to move with the gait and expression of someone who is facing defeat and she conveys the emotional impact of her situation perfectly. She won two Best Actress awards in Taiwan and nominations in other festivals during 2014.

The way in which Ling is represented/presented in Exit raises questions about melodrama and realism/naturalism. Most reviews suggest that Chienn avoids melodrama and chooses realism. But I think that the cinematography and mise en scène are in a way ‘excessive’ in their presentation of the marginalised and isolated figure trapped in an environment. If I’d watched a sequence from this film without knowing anything about its production background I think I would still have placed it as Taiwanese based on my memories of Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Edward Yang and Tsai Ming-liang. As well as any cultural signifiers in the images it’s a matter of style and specifically the long take/long shot sequences. Here are a series of images demonstrating how Chienn and his camera operator Howard Hsu frame Ling in doorways, corridors, windows etc., emphasising her isolation and round corners and columns, from above or below suggesting her marginalisation:









It’s the tension between the isolation produced through the visual imagery and identification with the character via Chen’s performance which makes the film work for me. Most of the scenes use only diegetic sounds so the the single prominent use of non-diegetic music associated with the promise of the dance class has more resonance. I don’t want to spoil moments in the film so I’ll just mention that there are several interesting examples of ‘real’ issues about living in her flat that also represent symbolically Ling’s sense of being trapped and isolated.

Exit is perhaps an unfortunate English language title but I recommend the film as a character study and an excellent example of camerawork and mise en scène.


Facet Film website for further details. The DVD has interviews with both the director and leading actors.

UK trailer from Facet Film:

Salute! Sun Yat-Sen (Taiwan 2014)

The four boys with Lefty second from left.

The four boys with Lefty (Zhan Huai-Yun) second from left.

On the surface this is a gentle comedy about young teenage boys in downtown Taipei. It is slow-paced, observational and sometimes very funny. ‘Lefty’ is a gangling schoolboy and the leader of a ‘gang of four’, each of whom is struggling to find the money to pay their school fees. One day he notices a bronze figure in a school store-room, a full-size statue of Sun Yat-Sen, the leader of the Chinese Revolution of 1911. Lefty quickly works out that he could sell the statue and make enough to fund all four boys through school. He plans the ‘heist’ in meticulous detail and the gang is all set – only to discover that someone else in the school leading another group has exactly the same intention. Despite attempts to negotiate a truce, the two gangs eventually compete to steal the statue in a long and engaging set piece. If this was just a heist narrative it would offer standard genre entertainment. But I think there is more to it than that. This isn’t so surprising since the writer-director is Yee Chih-yen whose 2002 film Blue Gate Crossing was both a critical and commercial success.

Throughout the narrative there is a focus on the relative poverty of the boys in the gangs. At one point Lefty and his opposite number (who refuses to give his name until the final reel) compete to show that they are the poorest and therefore the ones who should be allowed to steal the statue. Later, all of the boys claim they are poor because there is a long history of unemployment in their families. This is one aspect of the social commentary of the film. Sun Yat-Sen is known as ‘the father of the state’ in Taiwan and still has a profile as a leader who prepared for the ‘people’s revolution’ in the PRC. The two groups of boys struggle to take the prize for themselves even though by joining forces they would stand a much better chance of success (the statue is actually very heavy and difficult to move). Is it too much of a leap to suggest that this is might be a commentary on the history of ‘two Chinas’ since 1949? When they fight each other they achieve little, but together they could complete the task effectively.

The thieves' disguise . . .

The thieves’ disguise . . .

I enjoyed the film and found Lefty to be an engaging character as played by Zhan Huai-Yun. I was also impressed by Chen Pa-tu’s cinematography, especially the lighting of night-time streets. Why is it that in East Asian films generally, night-time streets seem so much less threatening than in the West?

The original Minnie Mouse

The original Minnie Mouse

The idea of thieves hiding behind joke-shop masks is not new but the ones in this film seem original. They are the cheapest in the store and they make the skin itchy. They appear to be modelled on an anime character – I thought of a Japanese ‘Minnie Mouse’, which seems somehow appropriate. The Japanese influence on Taiwanese school culture is also evident in what looks like a Kendo martial arts school glimpsed in the opening scenes.

Salute! Sun Yat-Sen is one of the films scheduled for VOD and DVD release by a new UK distributor, Facet Film Distribution. The release date is July 27th and the DVD can be pre-ordered from Amazon. The two founders of the company, Victor Huang and Edison Cheng are Londoners with a passion for East Asian films and their website and Facebook pages are useful resources for news and ideas about East Asian cinema. I wonder what chance they have of success. Taiwanese films in the UK have been mostly limited to the arthouse successes of  Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Tsai Ming-Liang (and earlier Edward Yang) and even these have often struggled to get UK distribution. Ang Lee’s early Taiwanese films did manage to get some form of release but it has been a real struggle for contemporary popular films. I’ve very much enjoyed the two I’ve been able to see – You Are the Apple of My Eye (Taiwan 2011) and Cape No. 7 (Taiwan 2008). I’m certainly going to look out for new releases from Facet.

Here’s the trailer for Salute: Sun Yat-Sen: 

Glasgow FF15 #6: Dearest (China-HK 2014)

Zhao Wei as the woman fighting for her 'family' in DEAREST.

Zhao Wei as the woman fighting for her ‘family’ in DEAREST.

The second Chinese film I saw in Glasgow offered both similarities of theme and great contrast in aesthetics. Dearest directed by the Hong Kong producer-director Peter Chan is more commercial and possibly more exploitative for some than Wang Xiaoshuai’s Red Amnesia – but it is also a much more popular film at the box office taking $54 million in Summer 2014. Peter Chan has a strong track record in various genres and I was very impressed by his 1990s melodrama Comrades, Almost a Love Story (HK 1996). Recently he made the timely mainland film about the new private schools in China, American Dreams in China (China-HK 2013).

This new mainland film is set in Southern China with Mandarin as the main language, but also some local dialects (the different status of the two languages is an element in the dialogue). The story is adapted from a news story in 2011 in the city of Shenzhen close to the border with Hong Kong. The social issue here is the criminal activity of child abduction – and the subsequent legal wrangling over the future of abducted children, which I take to be a partial outcome of the ‘one child’ policy which existed for several years in China. Tian Wenjun is divorced from Xiaojuan who has remarried. On the day that she brings their son Peng-Peng back to Wenjun’s computer parlour, the 3 year-old wanders off and disappears. Both parents feel guilty and they join a group of parents whose children have been abducted. Wenjun tirelessly searches for his son. One day all his advertising and offers of rewards finally pays off. Without wanting to spoil the narrative, I’d just like to report that the narrative then takes a sharp turn to focus on the seemingly unwitting ‘mother’ of the abducted boy. She is played by one of the leading stars of Chinese Cinema Zhao Wei (‘Vicky Zhao’) and the emotional levels are raised when she begins to seek legal help to keep her other child, also an abductee, who she will maintain was abandoned. This character is in some ways the traditional ‘suffering woman’ of the East Asian melodrama.

Dearest is a powerful emotional film and there are moments when it seems similar to the family melodrama scenes in Kore-eda Hirokazu’s Like Father, Like Son (Japan 2013) – especially in the family court scenes. However, while Kore-eda’s film negotiates the melodrama with some delicacy, Chan ramps up the emotion. Regular readers will know that we are not against full-blown melodrama and I found Dearest to be engaging throughout, offering just the kind of narrative I like. However, this kind of East Asian popular drama is a hard sell in the West and it is noticeable that whereas Red Amnesia has a UK distributor, Dearest has so far not been picked up for the UK. I think it’s our loss if we don’t get to see both films and are able to compare them. Having said that I worry about how Dearest would be received.