Postwar drama and decadence
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