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Three Times / Zui hao de shi guang France/Taiwan 2005

Posted by keith1942 on February 26, 2017

Director: Hou Hsiao-hsien

The film features three stories, all starring Shu Qi and Chang Chen, and including Di Mei in supporting roles.

The first, A Time for Love, is set in 1966. Shu Qi plays May, a snooker-hall girl. Di Mei is her mother. And Chang Chen is Chen, a military conscript on leave.

The second, A Time for Freedom, is set in 1911. Taiwan, [then Formosa] was under Japanese control. In Mainland China, after a revolution, Sun Zhong Shan proclaimed the Republic of China. Shu Qi plays a courtesan, Di Mei is the ‘madame’ of the house, whilst Chang Chen [Mr Chang] is a republican.

The third, A Time for Youth, is a contemporary story set in the world of techno-rock and clubs. Shu Qi is singer Jing, who suffers from epilepsy and partial blindness. Di Mei plays her aunt and Chang Chen [Chen] is a motor-biking photographer. Jing also has a girlfriend, Blue (Chen Shih-shan).

Though Hou Hsiao-hsien’s film focuses on love stories, it also alludes to the political history of Taiwan. This is most overt in the second story, set in the tumultuous year of 1911. But there are also references in the other stories. Hsiao-hsien’s earlier films have also addressed Taiwan’s chequered history. A City of Sadness (Beiqing Chengshi, 1989] dealt with events in the late 1940s, when following the Civil War the mainland Guomindang government evacuated to the island. The Time to Live and the Time to Die (Tongnian Wangshi, 1985) was set in the 1950s and followed the life of a mainland family who had emigrated to the island.

At various stages in its history the Island, formally known as Formosa, was occupied by the Portuguese, Dutch and then Chinese. China ceded it to Japan after the war of 1895. This meant the island people were excluded from the great democratic revolution in Mainland China of 1911. The Island remained under Japanese control during the 1920s and 1930s, when the Japanese invaded both China and Korea. And it remained occupied during the Pacific war from 1941 to 1945. It was recovered for Mainland China in 1945 by the Nationalist Guomindang Government. Conflict ensured and there was an island rebellion in 1947, which was brutally suppressed. When the Guomindang lost in the Civil War to the revolutionary Chinese Communist movement, it retreated to Taiwan. With US support they retained the title Republic of China, and benefited from US aid. Despite US propaganda about ‘democracy’ it was an authoritarian regime with little direct democracy. The détente between China and the USA in the 1970s undermined Taiwan. It lost its UN seat and later the US annulled the mutual security pact. The island’s political system gradually opened up though it was only in 1990 that mainland Guomindang members ceased to dominate the parliament. In 2001 the ban on trade and communication with Mainland China was partially lifted.

It is worth observing the mise en scène in the film: and Mark Lee Ping-bing’s lighting and photography are finely crafted. The selection and organisation of camera shots also show that Hsiao-hsien uses distinctive techniques. He particularly favours the long shot and the long take. The editing of the overall film [as opposed to shot-to-shot] is also distinctive. The arrangement of the stories is not chronological, and a parallel breach of chronology also occurs within the stories. Indeed each story has its own distinctive set of techniques and style.

The sound design produces an evocative track, and music plays a key part in this. Each story has a particular and appropriate song. And the music has both diegetic [part of the story] and non-diegetic [accompanying the story] functions.

The following contains plot information and comments on techniques. I should say that when I first saw the film, at the 2006 Göteborg Film Festival, I found an important part of the pleasure was the way the film surprises viewers.

threetimesscene

A Time for Love

The setting in various snooker halls crosses over with Edward Yang’s film A Brighter Summer Day (1991). However, those in this film are not especially seedy and are the locale for a romantic story. The film opens with a shot of May watching Chen play billiards, [in the following scenes the game is snooker; the director in an interview refers to pool halls, but we never see that game]. Only later we realise that this shot is out of sequence. Chen only meets May during the course of the film. The mood of the story is partially set by two classic popular songs – ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ and ‘Rain and Tears’. The latter song actually has a diegetic function as Chen mentions listening to it in a letter to May. But, like the classic Platter’s track, it also provides a commentary on the developing relationship.

threetimes_1911-02

A Time for Freedom

The story is set in 1911 and presented in the silent film format of that period. The use of a dubbed soundtrack was due to technical limitations, but the style that the director has produced is the result of inspired choice. As with the original silent films, dialogue is imparted by title cards and there is accompanying music. In fact, in two scenes which more or less bookend the story, the accompanying music is a traditional song, which the courtesan is actually performing. But this is entirely appropriate, as alongside early experiments in sound there were also silent presentations where live music was synchronised to the cinematic image. The mise en scéne and the music become especially poignant as the courtesan’s situation mirrors that of Taiwan, left alone and outside the great democratic revolution that swept Mainland China.

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A Time for Youth is the most ambiguous of the three stories and the trickiest to follow.

Jing is a singer with two relationships, one with Chen and one with Blue. A key scene shows Jing returning to her flat, where she left Blue earlier. Blue has awakened and found Jing gone. She types a message on the computer:

“I’m fed up hearing your lies, fed up waiting for you.

I love you more than you love me.

You’ll regret this. I’ll kill myself like your ex-girlfriend.”

Jing returns. She lights a cigarette and looks round the flat. She read the message left by Blue. There is an off-screen sound and Jing goes and looks on the balcony. She sits on the bed smoking. Her emotions are difficult to decipher. The viewer is given no further information. I wondered about this scene, and only when I saw the film again was I convinced that the sound we hear is Blue jumping from the balcony. Thus the sequence seems to use a comparatively rare technique, a plot point made by a sound cue.

I have now seen the film three times, appropriately. I still find it an exceptionally fine film, and well up to Hou Hsiao-hsien’s high standards. It also crosses over with the work of Edward Yang; several of the cast have also featured in his films. Yang’s films also make interesting use of sound tracks. This seems to be a particular skill among Taiwanese filmmakers

In colour, aspect ratio 1.66:1. With English subtitles. 134 minutes

Screenplay: Chu Tien-wen, A Time to Love inspired by Tai Ai-jon, Ms Gin Oy. Director of Photography: Mark Lee Ping-bing. Supervising editor: Liao Ch’ing-song. Production designer: Hwarng wern-ying. Music: Lin Ciong, LiKuo-yuan, K-B-N.

Originally a festival report on ITP World.

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In the Mood for Love/ Faa yeung nin wa, Hong Kong / China 2000

Posted by keith1942 on November 21, 2016

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The film came second in ‘BBC Culture’s 100 greatest films of the 21st Century’. Nick James, in an editorial in Sight & Sound, made a personal argument that it should be in the first place. It is certainly critically highly regarded and has good rankings in many different listings: it has also won many awards. The International title in English comes from a popular song of the 1930s: recorded many times over the years. The Chinese title has a couple of meanings, one being ‘the flowery years’:  a ‘Chinese metaphor for the fleeting time of youth, beauty and love’. The film uses Cantonese, Shanghainese and French [with subtitles] and the songs on the soundtrack come in several languages as well.

The basic story is simple and the main plot suggested by an opening on-screen title. Set in the early 1960s Hong Kong, a married man and woman move into adjoining apartments. As they become acquainted they realise that their spouses are having an affair with each other. Despite this, their growing friendship remains platonic. Later in the film the man moves to Singapore and they are separated. They miss meeting each other later in Hong Kong. At the film’s end the man visits the Buddhist Temple at Angkor Wat where he performs a ritual relating to his memories.

The main setting is important. We are in Hong Kong when it was still a British colony. There is a brief reference in the film to the unrest there in 1967 and demonstrations against the British occupation. In the same period Hong Kong was an emerging, dynamic market with a rapidly expanding population. One of the key aspects of the film is the sense of an overcrowded urban area with competition for living space. The characters are on top of each other and accommodation is a prized commodity.

Food is an important component in the film. We see characters at meals on a number of occasions. The depiction of food and eating seems to be a common motif in South East Asian films. And the communal aspects of eating is important here. There are a number of occasions when the landlady of the apartments invites one character to join them in a meal. But we also see characters eating alone and using taken out food: emphasising a sense of alienation for some.

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The two main characters are Su Li-zhen – Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) and Chow Mo-wan  (Tony Leung). They are two of the best known Hong Kong film stars internationally and have appeared in several films together. These include other films by the director Won Kar-wai and martial arts films such as Hero (2002).   Their performances and the relationship they create onscreen is important for the feel of the film. Moreover, throughout the film Mrs Chan is dressed in the traditional cheongsam dresses whilst Chow is uniformly in suits, though he at one point removes his jacket and at another both jacket and shirt. All these add to the strong sense of period.

This and the style of the film would appear to account for its appeal. It is very much a cineaste’s film, with a strong emphasises on visual and aural style. The cinematography by Chris Doyle [a Wong-Kar Wai regular] and Mark Lee Ping Bin is lustrous. It is also carefully constructed. The sense of cramped space and of society bearing in on the characters is strong, with characters frequently blocked in by lines, buildings and fittings. There are several shots that use mirrors for reflection. Long shots also suggest characters trapped by their environment. And the leisurely long takes that recur, notably in the final sequence at Ankur Wat Temple, produce a meditative feel. Much of the film relies on chiaroscuro lighting and the colour palette lacks saturated hues.

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The soundtrack and in particular then use of popular song adds to the feel of the film. The Chinese title track is “Hua Yang De Nian Hua”, a popular song from the 1940s. There are also several songs performed by Nat King Cole including “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás” [known as ‘Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps’ in an English rendering],  a popular Cuban song. The song ‘In the Mood for Love’, which inspires the international English-language title, does not appear in the film. The choice of songs adds to the wishful feel in the film and a sense of loss and transitory times.

The editing by William Chang is elliptical: moments are cut off whilst we are still following the action. And at other time shots are held beyond the point of the import for plot. This helps the feeling of ambiguity that pervades the film. The audience are listening in but never completely hear all the relevant information. The later point is emphasised in the final sequence, a sort of epilogue. When Chow visits the Ankor Wat Temple he whispers his secret into a cavity in a tree. We do not hear the words but we can guess at their import.

When we discussed the film students had a number of reservations about the film, though they were impressed by the production and felt the emotional effect of the story. Some felt that the film was too ambiguous and also found the style of the film inhibited involvement with the characters. It strikes me that In the Mood for Love is indeed a cineaste’s film. When I looked at the BBC Culture ‘top 100’ I saw that this Wong-Kar-wai film followed David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001). That film is even more ambiguous and even trickier to follow than In the Mood for Love. The BBC list was compiled from responses from 177 film critics. This is a very specialist audience and, moreover, both directors are regarded as ‘auteurs’, beloved by critics. It would seem that In the Mood for Love is a classic with a specific and limited audience. It is worth adding that the film received a further outing in Leeds earlier this year. This was a screening organised by the Confucius Business Institute. The Institute is a parallel to the British Council, propagandising China’ economic potential abroad. Confucius was rightly criticised under the genuine Communist rule but has made a comeback under the ‘capitalist roaders’. The film does connect in some ways with Confucian morals which emphasise ‘correct’ social relationships and ‘family values’. However, at the end of the film, Chow is at a Buddhist temple, a movement that emphasises the transitory nature of our temporary life here; added to by an end-on-screen title. So I would be chary of subscribing Confucian values to this film: I doubt Confucius would have sympathised with the sense of loss that the film engenders.

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The Assassin/Nie yin niang, France – Taiwan – China – Hong Kong 2015

Posted by keith1942 on March 3, 2016

Yinniang

Nie Yinniang

The film was screened several times in the Official Section at Leeds International Film Festival and is now on release in the UK. The director, Hsiao-hsien Hou 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 two sequences [of only one or two shots] in standard widescreen [1.85:1]. Unfortunately not all presentations allow for this, I attended one screening where the widescreen was masked by blacking.

If you know the earlier films of Hsiao-hsien Hou, 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 Leeds were presumably excepting a typical martial arts films: they left early. The UK marketing uses the martial art 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 space and time, often without clear indications.

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 by so many 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: she appears in the pre-credit sequence dressed in black . [One release version is titled The Assassin in Black].

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. She belongs to family of a separate Provincial ruler and this was a marriage to cement an alliance.

Satoshi Tsumabuki as the Mirror Polisher. [Unidentified by name, the character’s title action is easy to miss: he appears late in the film, first by a rushing river, then when he comes to the rescue during an ambush in woods.

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. Jiaxin appears in the opening sequence with Yinniang. Jiacheng appears in the widescreen sequences, the only flashback. This sequence offers a metaphor for part if not of the tale.

Lei Zhenyu as Tian Xing, the uncle of Yinniang. First seen ill in bed, he is the centre of an ambush in a forest and is rescued by the Mirror Polisher and Yinniang.

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.

Tian Ji'an

Tian Ji’an

The opening segment of the film is in black and white and precedes the credits. This is a prelude to the main story and we meet two key characters; Yinniang and Jiaxin. Then the film changes to Academy colour. After a several scenes we move to the main setting in Weibo and the key 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 [and now a third time]. 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 the 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, 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 great compliments to the production team working under the director.

Music by Giong Lim

Cinematography by Ping Bin Lee

Film Editing by Chih-Chia Huang and Ching-Song Liao

Production Design by Wen-Ying Huang

Costume Design by Wen-Ying Huang

Sound Department Shih Yi Chu, Duu-Chih Tu and Shu-yao Wu

Special Effects by Ardi Lee

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.

Lady Tian in mask

Lady Tian in mask

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 frequent 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.

Hsiao-hsien 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 Hsiao-hsien 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. IMDB gives the exhibition ratio as 1.41:1, I have never come across this before? It runs for 107 minutes and crams a lot into that space. There are apparently more than one version. The Japanese release has extra scenes involving the Mirror Polisher, played by a Japanese film star. But reviews of the film also differ on plot detail: this may be confusion or it may be that they enjoyed extra scenes or suffered missing some scenes.

Originally a Festival review

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Black Coal, Thin Ice, Bai ri yan huo, China / Hong Kong 2014.

Posted by keith1942 on August 29, 2015

black-coal-thin-ice-poster

I saw this film at the same time as two friends and we had rather different responses. One liked it, one disliked it: I think I was the most impressed. That is along with the Berlin Film Festival where the film won the Golden Bear. So I have spent a little time considering what it is about the film that impressed me.

The film was written and directed by Yi’nan Diao and it is his third feature released internationally. Black Coal, Thin Ice shares some concerns and plot issues with his previous film Night Train (Ye Che, 2007).It is sited in classic film noir territory, though for much of the film it is not clear whether the protagonist is a seeker or victim hero. Likewise it takes time to get a sense of the murder plot and to identify the femme fatale.

The cinematography of Dong Jinsong and the Art Direction of Liu Qiang provide an excellent noir world. There are the shadowy and sometimes neon-lit visuals. There are the enclosing settings and the wintry landscapes. This is the environment where criminality and chaos abound: and the ambiguity is heightened by the many times that a view or a setting is not clearly placed with the developing plot. There is some very effective editing: in particular a cut in a long travelling shot that transports character and viewers across five years. This also caries across the angst and uncertainties that plague the protagonist.

I found the performances very effective. Zhang Zili plays the investigator Fan Liao, whilst Wu Zhizhen plays the woman, Gwei Lun Mei, who comes to obsess him. Both remain partly undeveloped characters, which makes the climax and resolution the more effective.

The film is the more ambiguous because it is full of scenes whose function in the plot is unclear. I think this was the aspect of the film that most annoyed my less enthusiastic friend. I think I am probably less concerned with linear plots than some audience members. I actually enjoyed the digressions and seemingly unmotivated sequences that occurred regularly in the film. But I also thought that they contributed to the themes of the film. Noir constantly explores the problems of the world of the [usually male] hero: but great noirs [say Force of Evil, 1948) equally explore the problems of the world of the audience that is watching the film. This is how I read Diao’s film: the investigation and relationships of the plot are set against the a contemporary China full of dislocations and contradictions.

Diao’s two previous films explored family dislocation and the pressures of internal migration: and there is a sense of these issues in this film. I suppose the challenge for the audience was to keep tabs on what related to the film’s official plot and what related to the world in which that is supposed to occur. Just to offer a prime example: apparently the film’s original title translates as Daylight Firework Club. But we only encounter this late in the film and the closing sequence deals much more with this event than it does with the official noir mystery of the film.

So I enjoyed it immensely, but if you go to see it [preferably at the cinema – it looks and sounds great] be prepared for a less than straightforward 110 minutes.

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