Amid the 68th Cannes festival hoopla about Mad Max, the new Pixar film Inside Out and flat shoes on the red carpet, the cinephiles have been anxiously awaiting the festival's second half, and new films by two of contemporary cinema's master filmmakers, China's Jia Zhangke and Taiwan's Hou Hsiao-hsien.
Both directors are associated with the "long shot, long take" style of art-house filmmaking, characterized by careful camera compositions, inventive formal storytelling devices and a patient attention to the rhythms of daily life. Jia, 44, is a generation younger than Hou, 68, and something of a disciple, who was highly influenced by seeing his first Hou film when he was in film school and decided to pursue similar projects that were personal, social and historic.
Jia's own great theme is the psychological cost of China's economic growth and social change, and his Cannes film Mountains May Depart is one of his most accessible expressions of that sense of loss and alienation. The story begins in 1999 in Jia's hometown of Fenyang, with a classic dramatic set-up in the story of two men, one rich and one poor, in love with the same young schoolteacher, Tao (Zhao Tao).
After she picks one of them, the story jumps ahead to 2014, following her divorce. Then finally, it moves ahead again to 2025, where one of the original characters, and his adult son, are now living in Australia. Each time period is shown in a different screen aspect ratio, growing progressively wider as the action moves further from home. The whole thing is bookended by the Pet Shop Boys' cover of the Village People's Go West.
Jia, who has been in the Cannes competition six times and won the best-screenplay award in 2013 for A Touch of Sin, has made another film that is gorgeous and moving, though it's hampered by the third act, when the dialogue switches to stilted English and the plotting feels didactic. Mountains May Depart might win a prize for cinematography, or for the performance of Jia's radiant actress, wife and muse, Zhao Tao, who dominates the first two acts, and appears in a lovely coda scene.
As for Hou Hsiao-hsien's The Assassin, it's a masterpiece and the obvious Palme d'Or contender, in spite of its challenges. The story focuses on the story of Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), the daughter of a general, who has been taken away for special education by a nun-princess. Now an adult (dressed in black, with a sword hairpin), she is assigned to kill Lord Tian Ji'an (Chang Chen), governor of Weibo, a military stronghold that is at odds with the imperial court in Beijing. There's a catch: Yinniang was once betrothed to the Lord, and while her mistress keeps urging pitiless swiftness, Yinniang waits, and we wait with her, until she chooses to strike.
After a 10-minute prologue in black and white, The Assassin shifts into colour with a hallucinogenic sunrise and the opening credits. From there on, the movie progresses with one ravishing shot after another, breathtaking mountainous landscapes (shot in Inner Mongolia) and fastidiously detailed ninth-century court interiors. Yinniang, who can enter any residence undetected, serves as our stealth-cam, hiding behind gauzy curtains. Static scenes brim with tension, accentuated by a single throbbing drum, because we know she can strike at any time.
As brilliant as The Assassin is visually, the story can be a challenge to follow. The court intrigues – a pregnant concubine, a sorcerer who sends out snakelike poisonous smoke, the various alliances and antipathies – are presented with little exposition.
Even the fighting scenes are shockingly concise. Unlike the heroes of other martial-arts films, Yinniang doesn't waste time dancing in tree tops or running up walls but finds the direct line from blade to throat, fist to heart. Like Hou, she's an uncompromising minimalist.
After seeing an evening screening on Wednesday, I watched the film again Thursday morning, to sort out the story. I'll watch The Assassin many more times, even if I never quite get it.