East Asia. Movies reviewed: The Assassin, Miss Hokusai, Port of Call
Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.
Toronto’s fall film festival season continues in November. Rendezvous with Madness opens tonight, featuring films and documentaries made by or about people with mental health or addiction issues. Each screening is followed by a panel discussion. And don’t miss the ReelAsian International Film Festival which started last night. I find movies from East Asia doubly interesting, not just for the story, acting and cinematography, but also for the cultural insights. This week, I’m looking at three Asian movies: a true crime drama set in contemporary Hong Kong, a martial arts epic set in Tang dynasty China, and Japanese anime set in 19th Century Edo.
Dir: Hou Hsiao-hsien
Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi) is a young woman in Tang dynasty China born into high-ranked family. As children, she and Tian Ji’an – a first cousin (Chang Chen) — are given matching disks carved from yellow jade, as a symbol of their future marriage. But destinies change. So to save her life, her mother sends the 10-year-old away to study with a Taoist nun.
But what does she study? She leaves there with a moral drive to defend the empire against all foes, both inside and at its fringes. With her long black hair hanging down, the beautiful Nie Yinniang now dresses in black robes to remain unseen, a veritable Chinese ninja. She can handle a sword like none other. Her profession? Assassin. The kind who can take down an official on horseback in the midst of a royal retinue and disappear a second later.
But does she have the mental toughness to kill on command? She refuses to kill a target when she sees him protecting his child. The nun says “to be a true assassin, first kill the one that victim loves, then the victim himself.” And she sends her back to her beginnings with a mission. Kill the one she loves most — Tian Ji’An!
This sounds like just another martial arts movie, and it does have some excellent sword fights, battles and chase scenes. But don’t go to this movie expecting an ordinary action film. Cause it ain’t. It’s by renowned Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien, known for his stunning visual and musical style, cultural sensitivity… and sloooow pace. Cloak and dagger politics, sumptuous costumes, stilted language, they’re all there, but without the driving music and non-stop action of most Wushu movies. This is suitable for Hou Hsiao-hsien fans, but anyone looking for a crouching tiger or a hidden dragon will search in vain.
Dir: Hara Keiichi
Based on the manga Sarusuberi by Sugiura Hinako
O-ei is an accomplished painter in 19th century Edo (now called Tokyo), known for her scary images of hell, and erotic portraits of women. She spends her days painting in her father’s studio, or trolling the lanes of Yoshiwara, the red light district. She lives in the floating world of actors, sex workers, geisha, samurai and nouveau-riche merchants. And she visits her blind little sister, sent away by their dad who doesn’t like being near disabled people. The movie follows episodes from her life, both realistic and fantastical: painting her first dragon (the spirit has to possess you), seeing demons, even witnessing a long-necked geisha’s out-of-body experience. And her first sexual experience with a man, an onna-gata kabuki actor, who spends his life dressed as a woman.
Based on a true story, you may be wondering how come you’ve never heard of her? The answer is simple: she lived under the shadow of one of the most famous Japanese artists of all time, Hokusai. His ukiyo-e block prints of mount Fuji and his big blue cresting wave are still ubiquitous images when you think of Japan. He was quite the showman, creating the world’s largest brush painting of Zen Buddhist monk Daruma, using a brush bigger than he was.
Miss Hokusai is both faithful to, and a victim of, Japanese anime based on manga. It follows the winding pace and endless variations of Japanese manga, not the neat beginning/middle/end of a western graphic novel. I like its non-judgemental view of the pre-Meiji demi-monde, and it’s all-around Japaneseness. Just wish it had a more linear plot.
Port of Call
Dir: Philipp Yung
Wang Jiamei (Jessie Li) is a student at a Catholic high school in Hong Kong. Originally from Hunan on the mainland, she arrived with her ambitious divorced mom and her innocent little sister. Her dad is a layabout gambler who makes his money whenever Manchester United loses a game. She picks up the local language but can’t fit in. She feels cold and detached inside, alienated. When a girl at the next desk slits her wrist in class, she doesn’t even blink. She drops out and drifts from job to job. A modelling agency sends her to one gig – she becomes the poster girl – literally – in an ad warning about domestic violence. Prophetic.
Ting (Michael Ning) is a friendless, chubby boy whose mother was killed in a truck accident when he was a kid. After online chatting, he had hired Kama (Jiamei’s name she uses as an escort.) But their meeting leads to a series of horrific events. And when she completely disappears her mother calls the cops to investigate. Detective Chong (Aaron Kwok) quickly determines she’s not missing, she’s dead. But her body is nowhere to be found. Until Ting walks into a police station and confesses all.
Through a series of flashbacks and courtroom testimony, the three characters – the murderer, the relentless detective and the dead victim – all reveal their secrets, feelings, histories and surprising motivations. What starts out as a simple police procedural turns into a moving — and at times shocking – drama of a case that had Hong Kongers glued to the tabloids just a few years ago.
Port of Call is a bit long and has some truly disgusting scenes. But it captures a feeling unique to parts of Hong Kong: gritty, grimy, cramped and crowded. The great performances by two unknown actors (plus veteran singer/star Aaron Kwok), its indie soundtrack, the unmistakable images of HK cinematographer Christopher Doyle, plus a surprise ending, all place this film a step above most true crime movies.
The Assassin is playing now in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, and you can catch Miss Hokusai and Port of Call at the ReelAsian Film Festival. This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website culturalmining.com.