Monday, October 12, 2015

The Assassin (2015)

Screen capture from trailer.
WHO: The legendary Hou Hsiao-Hsien directed and co-produced this film from a screenplay he co-wrote with Xie Hai Meng, Zhong Acheng and his longtime collaborator Chu Tien-Wen.

WHAT: Although I was able to view Hou's first feature since 2007's Flight of the Red Balloon at a Mill Valley Film Festival-sponsored press screening, I'm not supposed to provide more than a brief "capsule" review until its commercial run a week and a half from now. Just as well, as I'd need at least one more viewing to feel comfortable talking about it in any depth. For now I'll just call it a visually sumptuous, anti-kung fu film that verges closer to "avant-garde" than anything else Hou has done. Ninety-nine percent of the film is presented in a square-ish Academy aspect ratio, which along with its black-and-white opening makes The Assassin seem more like a 1950s Akira Kurosawa film than like the wuxia pian made by King Hu and others (always in widescreen) in the 1960s and beyond. Though honestly Mizoguchi, especially a late color film like Princess Yang Kwei Fei, feels like a more relevant referent (and one I'm not surprised to see Danny Kasman had perceived long before I did). Hou has worked with square ratios before, but (I'm pretty certain) only in his framings-within-framings in widescreen films like City of Sadness and Good Men, Good Women. It's as if he's reclaiming 4:3 Academy as a more truly "cinematic" shape in this era of wide televisions and phones.

WHERE/WHEN: Screens tonight at the Embarcadero Cinema at 6:30 and 9:15, and 8:30 on October 17th at the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. All these showings are "at RUSH", meaning advance tickets are sold out and would-be buyers must form a line in hopes of obtaining seats as they're made available. The Assassin opens a regular theatrical run at the Metreon, the Shattuck Cinema in Berkeley, and Camera 3 in San Jose starting October 23rd.

WHY: Although tonight's screenings will take some persistence to get into for those who haven't already secured tickets, it's fair to say they'll be worth it, as Hou Hsiao-Hsien himself is expected to attend at least the first one, a rare occurrence here in San Francisco indeed. An auteur of his stature visiting this city is cause for real celebration, and the SF Film Society has complied by making Hou a main focus of its entire Taiwan Film Days mini-festival tonight and tomorrow. In addition to the two showings of The Assassin there's a revival showing of what many consider Hou's first great film, The Boys From Fengkuei, and although Hou is not (as far as I understand) expected to attend this showing, he does make a cameo appearance in a very early-eighties perm. There are still advance tickets available for this screening as well as for the Flowers of Taipei: Taiwan New Cinema, a recent documentary about the 1980s and 1990s heyday of Taiwan's cinematic production history, focusing attention on famous names like Edward Yang, Tsai Ming-Liang and Hou (whose Flowers of Shanghai obviously inspired the doc's title) but also on lesser-knowns like Wang Tung, who employed a pre-Rebels of the Neon God Tsai as a screenwriter on multiple films. Director Chinlin Hsieh will be on hand for tomorrow night's showing.

Although the Mill Valley Film Festival The Assassin screening on the 17th is also at "Rush" (as was its Frisco Bay public premiere via the festival this past Thursday), there is still a lot of this festival to go that has plenty of tickets available. There are still seats for tonight's second screening of the Hungarian prize-winner Son of Saul, for instance. I'll be attending this as consolation for missing Hou in person, thankful that the film's distributor insisted it be screened in 35mm. It's the only new film in the festival (and so far, to my knowledge, any 2015 Frisco Bay feature-oriented film festival) to screen in this format, but MVFF has also booked a couple of retrospective titles showing on actual film reels: The Sorrow and the Pity October 16th with director Marcel Ophuls on hand, and on October 18th Autumn Sonata, Inmgar Bergman's final made-for-the-cinema film and his only collaboration with Ingrid Bergman. A documentary about her, Ingrid Bergman - In Her Own Words also screens at the Rafael Film Center tonight, launching an eight-title series celebrating her centennial. I'm told than the program page for this series contains a typo and that the documentary will not screen in 35mm but that Autumn Sonata and Notorious definitely will (the latter is also newly booked to play the Paramount in Oakland in that format) . As will Confidential Report and F For Fake in the Rafael's upcoming Orson Welles centennial conclusion, and Star Trek IV: the Voyage Home on December 3rd. In fact, between the Mill Valley Film Festival (which is far more thoroughly explored at The Evening Class by Michael Hawley and by Michael Guillén) and the upcoming Rafael winter calendar, I feel safe to say the California Film Institute holds a commanding lead among local cinephile institutions stepping up their game in the absence of the Pacific Film Archive this Fall, at least from my perspective. No, the Stanford's current Rogers & Hammerstein festival is not going to cut it for me, and though the Castro and Roxie both have some interesting programs on their slates (I'm most excited by Ken Russell's The Devils October 20th, the Brothers Quay shorts in December and Audition Halloween week), neither venue is doing quite enough to prevent me from wishing it were as easy to get to San Rafael in public transportation as it was to get to Berkeley.

HOW: The Assassin screens as a Digital Cinema Package (DCP).