How nice it's been to anticipate another set of tales from modern Portugal in the form of Miguel Gomes's Arabian Nights! The film's three parts have been shown every other day here in Cannes, and I've finally caught the last and I must say I already miss the idea that Gomes and his Scheherazade will unspool even more for me two days hence. If she told the stories to her king to stave off her death, I feel Gomes is telling me stories, among many others reasons, in order to stave off the powerful aura of respectable averageness prevalent at Cannes 2015.
Arabian Nights Volume 3: The Enchanted One had me smiling for a good forty-five minutes in a row. After a brief glimpse of Gomes's modern version of Scheherazade in Volume 1, we finally get to spend some time with her in "Baghdad," wandering the landscape encountering lovers and bandits, singing and listening to songs, and otherwise collecting a series of microscopic tales shown in small sections and exposited in text placed on screen (but different in size, position and type from other title cards, and of course different than the voiceover also found across the volumes). This part positively glows, rooted in the free smile, easy humor, and great singing of Cristina Alfaiate as Scheherazade, traipsing with limited freedom in a brief respite from her deadly marriage. The next and final section, and I believe the longest in all of the Arabian Nights, is an almost straight documentary of a widespread but dying community of working class Portuguese who capture and train finches, at once a beautiful ethnography and perhaps a singing, nuanced analogy for today's troubled nation of Portugal.
The birds of Gomes were heard all the way from the Directors' Fortnight to the Festival de Cannes' competition, where they sonorously summoned a director whose absence in the world of film has been very strongly felt by many over the last eight years: Hou Hsiao-hsien. A symphony of birdcalls and the sounds of nature penetrate the staid formal world of 9th century Chinese aristocracy in Hou's The Assassin, far and away the best film in competition in Cannes. For the first time since this Taiwanese director's sublime masterpiece Flowers of Shanghai, Hou fully takes us back into China's past. This film, decades in the making, feels like the condensation and purification of something long lived with by all involved. It is a nüxia (woman knight) story, loosely based on a Tang dynasty tale, and it is spoken in guwen, a very classical, literary style of Chinese. And yet for his lady assassin Hou has chosen his most modern of performers, Shu Qi, his pop muse from 2001's Millennium Mambo onward, and so we see the young embodiment of Taiwanese modern woman transported into a past of courtly rules and manners, etiquette and architecture binding and restrictive for all, but especially for women: wives, mistresses, nuns, and servants. The call of birds on the soundtrack beckon with their natural freedom, a suggestion of unconfined life found in the staggering beauty of The Assassin's Chinese landscapes, an exterior world more ancient and understanding than that of refined humanity.
The Assassin is so beautiful I really cannot properly convey it without other cinematic reference (a taste: Princess Yang Kwei-Fei, Josef von Sternberg, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Black Narcissus, King Hu's All the King's Men, Jauja), Hou working in 35mm with his undisputed master cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bin, a collaboration we've very much missed but have been rewarded in spades. The image size is 1.33, the old "Academy Ratio," and Hou joins several filmmakers here in Cannes playing with aspect ratio and color: the film's prologue is in luscious black and white with flourishes of very short depth of field, and early on our story is interrupted and re-interpreted by a woman playing a zither, the images suddenly in widescreen, telling the classic Chinese tale of the bluebird that could not sing until it saw its own reflection, upon which it sang a song of sorrow until it died. Is this the story we then see unfold in Hou's long takes? Here, the pacing has a hypnotic tempo that transported me into a completely foreign sense of time's passing. The screen size then returns to normal, but the image texture continues to vary from the resplendent gloss of red-drenched interiors to the mineral feel of the outdoors.
Let me tell you a story to give you some grounding, though I assure you this film's attitude towards storytelling is radically abstract and after a single viewing the narrative is as diaphanous as the curtains breathing and pulsing in every palace room. Once promised to cousin Tian Ji’an (a majestic Chang Chen serene, glowering, and melancholy), young aristocrat Nie Yinniang (Qi, with a burning stare) was instead taken to a monastery to be trained in martial arts, taught to suppress her sentiment and ruthlessly assassinate the evil and corrupt. Failing once to kill a lord who was cradling his son, she is punished by being put to the ultimate test: to return home and kill her cousin. Coming back from exile, she oscillates between observing his new life—married with kids and a concubine, and beset by machinations of political tension between the independent province he rules and that of the imperial court—and interceding in his affairs through her martial skill. It is all but a deeply felt game of watching and determining when to act—and in which way.
Indicative of The Assassin's elliptical and sidelong revelation of drama and emotion, the cousins don't say a single word to one another until more than halfway through the movie, when Nie Yinniang tells the lord that his mistress is pregnant, a passing, concise declaration yet so full of import, lost love and time. Featuring very little dialog and populated by seemingly incidental or innocuous scenes in Tian's palace—a meeting of ministers, visitors eating, the lord's children playing with balls—Hou creates a world of cloistered formality juxtaposed by the ease of his drifting camera catching the details of improvisation of his actors during the camera's long takes. An additional tension is added to this gorgeous, ossified world in the audacious idea of almost never seeing Nie Yinniang at rest, at home, sleeping or eating or doing any of the quotidian details of 9th century living Hou is trying to capture in extreme but modest precision. Instead, this woman's status as exile and outcast is subtly shown by her itinerant status in the mise en scène: She is always observing others, or showing up during troubles, but she is never simply living her life, as these settled aristocrats are.
Action is the counterpoint to this measured flow of images and incident, told not as radically as one might of hope from a director whose style is so distinctive, but rather is told as a direct contradiction to the world as we've previously seen it: what was slow, shot from a distance over time and from one side of the room is, during the film's fights, several very striking, told very quickly in cuts that show one side, and then reverse the angle. We never see such abrupt cutting and reverses in the film except in these fights—but for perhaps the most important scene in the film, when Nie Yinniang spies on Tian with his wife. Without a doubt one of the most exquisite sequences in cinema, Hou takes the guttering candles and billowing curtains that inundate the palace and fill the frame with constant movement and activity and literally places these dynamic, decorative elements between us and the couple. Josef von Sternberg himself would have died to achieve these images, with their vibrant colors in depth, the translucent gauze of the curtains flowing over and out of our view, the glowing, out of focus luminesce of candles likewise obscuring and drowning our vision. They are unforgettable images crystalizing the gap, the distance, between Nie Yinniang and Tian in time, social status, life, and love, transmuting the image into something sublimely soft, alive and far away.
Distance is what all in The Assassin try to collapse, a pursuit for equilibrium dramatized in Tian with his two women, and in his wife scheming to align their province with the imperial court (perhaps allegories for tensions between Taiwan and China), but emblematized by the striking figure of Shu Qi's Nie Yinniang, whose stance in the frame and firm gaze are a vivid reminder of the challenges of the path electing to serve duty over sentiment. Every element in the film radiates sentiment, from its enchanted colors and shimmering candy-box interiors to the poetic landscapes reminiscent of Jauja's glorious, otherworldly textures of nature—all is charged with feeling, as each gesture, presence and non-presence speak to deeper currents of emotion charged by morality. Yet all exist in a world that attempts to obtain a distance from such human concerns, whether it is through martial discipline or romance and marriage serving familial and political allegiances and obligations. Such humble but supreme density has made The Assassin slip through my fingers upon this first viewing, and it is the only film here at the festival that I wanted to demand they play it again, instantly.