Post­war drama and deca­dence

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

The chang­ing face of film dis­tri­bu­tion is pre­sent­ing a con­sid­er­able chal­lenge for film re­view­ers. Al­though there is al­ways an op­por­tu­nity to pre­view and re­view the big block­buster films, more and more small, lim­ited release films are emerg­ing that are ei­ther not pre­viewed at all ( Knight of Cups, Mis­sis­sippi Grind) — de­spite the pres­ence of prom­i­nent Aus­tralian ac­tors in their casts, Cate Blanchett and Ben Men­del­sohn re­spec­tively — or are given the most lim­ited ex­po­sure to re­view­ers prior to release ( Truth), and, of­ten, th­ese are among the most in­ter­est­ing films around. This week there are a couple of ex­am­ples of films that played at var­i­ous film fes­ti­vals across the coun­try but which were not (to my knowl­edge) pre­viewed for crit­ics (at least in Sydney) be­fore open­ing in a very lim­ited num­ber of coura­geously in­de­pen­dent cine­mas. Th­ese sorts of films are, of course, ex­actly the kind a re­viewer needs to cham­pion, es­pe­cially if they are as good as the two I’m writ­ing about to­day.

Phoenix is the lat­est film from Ger­man di­rec­tor Chris­tian Pet­zold whose work, in­clud­ing Wolfs­burg, Yella, Jeri­chow and Bar­bara, is con­sis­tently in­ter­est­ing. Phoenix is per­haps his best to date, and is based on a French novel, Le Re­tour des cen­dres by Hu­bert Mon­teil­het, which was pre­vi­ously filmed by Bri­tish di­rec­tor J. Lee Thomp­son as Re­turn from the Ashes (1965), with Max­i­m­il­ian Schell and In­grid Thulin. The idea be­hind the ba­sic plot — that of a woman whose dam­aged face is re­placed through surgery — is a well-worn one and has been used be­fore in Swedish film A Woman’s Face (1938 with In­grid Bergman) and its Hol­ly­wood re­make of the same name with Joan Craw­ford (1941), as well as Ge­orges Franju’s creepy Eyes with­out a Face (1960). And there are plenty of vari­a­tions to a theme used in the past as a ba­sis for com­edy as well as drama.

Pet­zold’s film is set in the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of World War II. Nelly, played by the di­rec­tor’s reg­u­lar lead ac­tress, the su­perb Nina Hoss, has sur­vived a con­cen­tra­tion camp but, as a re­sult of a gun­shot wound, her face has been hor­ri­bly dis­fig­ured. Her friend Lene (Nina Kun­zen­dorf) tells her that Johnny (Ron­ald Zehrfeld), her hus­band, had be­trayed her to save his own skin and urges Nelly, who be­fore the war was a night­club singer, to ac­com­pany her to Pales­tine. But Nelly is de­ter­mined to find Johnny and un­der­goes lengthy surgery to re­con­struct her face be­fore track­ing him down to Phoenix, a night­club where he works. And, of course, he fails to recog­nise her.

Hoss gives a mem­o­rable per­for­mance as the woman who still loves the man who be­trayed her, and thanks to her Pet­zold makes this po- ten­tially far-fetched melo­drama com­pletely be­liev­able. The shat­tered ru­ins of post­war Ger­many are evoca­tively re­alised, and the night­club it­self, in which a couple of women sing Cole Porter’s Night and Day in Ger­man and English, makes for a suit­ably deca­dent set­ting.

The per­sonal drama is lay­ered with sub­tle sub­texts and the film evokes the work of those clas­sic pro­po­nents of screen melo­drama, Dou­glas Sirk and Rainer Werner Fass­binder, in its com­bi­na­tion of highly coloured glam­our coat­ing a very dark cen­tre. The first thing to say about The As­sas­sin, which won for Tai­wan’s Hou Hsiao-hsien the award for best di­rec­tor at Cannes this year, is that it’s a long way from be­ing a “typ­i­cal” mar­tial arts movie. Ba­si­cally it con­tains all the el­e­ments of the genre: the set­ting (9th-cen­tury China dur­ing the dy­ing days of the Tang dy­nasty) and the theme (a pro­fes­sional as­sas­sin is sent to kill the ruler of a prov­ince), and there are cer­tainly a num­ber of ac­tion scenes in which swords slash and ar­rows fly. Yet fans of the genre should be warned that Hou isn’t in­ter­ested in the bat­tles and the may­hem — there’s no blood, no ex­plicit violence here.

The ti­tle char­ac­ter, and the Chi­nese ti­tle of the film, is Nie Yin­ni­ang, a lethal young woman played with quiet de­ter­mi­na­tion by Shu Qi. A pro­logue filmed in black and white re­veals that Yin­ni­ang was trained to be a pro­fes­sional killer af­ter be­ing ab­ducted from her fam­ily when she was 10. Her kid­nap­per and teacher is Ji­axin (Sheu Fang-yi), a nun whose mo­tives seem ob­scure. Her pro­tege shows her po­ten­tial when, in a bru­tally abrupt scene, she cuts the throat of a man on horse­back — a mo­ment that flashes by on screen al­most be­fore the eye can see it. Af­ter this suc­cess, Yin­ni­ang is sent to the prov­ince of Weibo to as­sas­si­nate its gov­er­nor, Lord Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen), but when she con­fronts her tar­get she can’t go through with the killing be­cause Tian’s son is also in the room. This is seen as a ma­jor fail­ure — sen­ti­ment has taken pre- ce­dence over duty. Later it’s re­vealed there was an­other rea­son for Yian­ni­ang’s hes­i­ta­tion, one to do with her past.

Af­ter about 10 min­utes in mono­chrome, the film is trans­formed into richly hued colour and be­comes, if noth­ing else, a feast for the eyes. Rarely in re­cent films have there been such sump­tu­ous im­ages, with ev­ery frame look­ing as though it should be hang­ing on a wall. The interiors of the palace, with its or­nate dec­o­ra­tions, the cos­tumes of the gov­er­nor, his fam­ily and ser­vants, and the coun­try­side be­yond the palace, with its lush pine forests, rivers, moun­tains and mead­ows — all are a spec­tac­u­larly beau­ti­ful thanks to the work of Hou’s reg­u­lar cin­e­matog­ra­pher, Mark Lee Ping Bin.

But while the sights (and sounds) of The As­sas­sin are all you could wish for in a movie, the screen­play (by the di­rec­tor and three other writ­ers) is some­what prob­lem­atic. In ret­ro­spect, the plot it­self is not that dif­fi­cult to fol­low, but the film tends to make it more com­plex and — for the inat­ten­tive viewer — more chal­leng­ing than it ac­tu­ally is. In other words, this is a film that, while you’re watch­ing it, seems con­fus­ing — though most of the con­fu­sions are ex­plained with post-screen­ing anal­y­sis.

This is prob­a­bly why the film is get­ting such a piti­fully lim­ited cin­ema release, af­ter screen­ing at most Aus­tralian film fes­ti­vals since Cannes. Yet for the ded­i­cated, ad­ven­tur­ous film­goer this could prove to be an in­cred­i­bly re­ward­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. In all his films — he started di­rect­ing in 1981 and has made 18 fea­tures to date — Hou has taken a clin­i­cal and hu­man­ist ap­proach to his themes, which have com­prised sto­ries set in con­tem­po­rary Tai­wan more than they have dealt with his­tor­i­cal sub­jects.

Here he is at­tempt­ing a more rig­or­ous ap­proach to one of Chi­nese cin­ema’s most pop­u­lar gen­res, a think­ing-per­son’s mar­tial arts film, steeped in real­ism rather than in­dulging in the ac­ro­batic ath­leti­cism of most films of this sort. It’s a rich and, for this viewer at least, re­ward­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

Nina Hoss is a con­cen­tra­tion camp sur­vivor in Phoenix

Shu Qi plays a lethal young woman sent on a mis­sion in The As­sas­sin

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.