Tag Archives: Taiwanese film

The Moulin

The Moulin
The Moulin

Format: Cinema

Seen at Rotterdam 2016

Director: Huang Ya-li

Original title: Le Moulin

Japan, Taiwan 2015

160 mins

A fascinating, contemplative documentary on 1930s Taiwanese modernist poets.

If you thought that it might be a tad painful to watch a nearly three-hour documentary on an obscure Taiwanese pre-war, avant-garde group of poets determined to bring a modernist agenda to the cultural table – think again.

The Moulin concentrates its eye on seven literary men who heroically formed a poets’ collective, ‘Le Moulin Poetry Society’, in 1933 in order to introduce the spirit of surrealism, and especially the ideas of André Breton and Jean Cocteau, to a Taiwan that had already been occupied by the Japanese for 40 years. Protest at this colonial occupation was a linked purpose of the group. Their chosen vehicle – in common with many proselytising artistic avant-garde movements of the modernist period – was the production of an advocacy journal, which in reference to its French intellectual affiliations and to its surrealist intentions, they named The Moulin. The intentions of ‘Le Moulin Poetry Society’ were clear: to lob a bomb into the body of historical Taiwanese (and by extension Japanese) artistic forms and to attempt to re-configure the poetic and artistic agenda. The seven were to be bitterly disappointed, however, as their journal and their aspirations met with incomprehension and failure, and The Moulin only survived for four issues.

Their hitherto forgotten story is revived in this fascinating slice of cultural history, which mixes old film clips, radio programmes and re-enacted scenes with spoken lines of poetry, on-screen imaging of the original texts and the incorporation of traditional songs, to paint an imaginative portrait of the group and provide a fulsome context for its understanding. The film interestingly notes a visit in May 1936 by Jean Cocteau, who enthusiastically showed his admiration for the Eastern culture that provided direct inspiration for the group.

The recounting of their story covers a turbulent time span in Taiwanese history, from the Japanese occupation, through the war years and to the 1950s annexation by China, all of which reflect the cultural struggle that the country endured. Utilising the dictum that ‘things are good to think with’, director Huang has chosen to reveal key aspects of the story not through facial close-ups but through his preference instead of close-focusing upon human interactions with objects of significance: the lighting of cigarettes, reading of texts, leafing through pages, gazing at photographs. This creates a poem-like reverie that takes its time to unfold and demands a contemplative response from the viewer to project meaning upon these ‘small’ gestures.

Huang Ya-li’s moving and expressive film essay is a revealing and memorable account of this forgotten slice of modernist history – a history that all too often relies on Eurocentric narratives and ignores the larger international moments that occurred elsewhere. This is a very welcome antidote to that centrist tendency.

James B. Evans

This review is part of our Rotterdam 2016 coverage.

The Assassin

The Assassin
The Assassin

Format: Cinema

Release date: 22 January 2016

BR/DVD release date: 23 May 2016

Distributor: Studiocanal

Director: Hou Hsiao-hsien

Writers: Hou Hsiao-hsien, Chu Tien-Wen, Hsieh Hai-Meng, Zhong Acheng

Original title: Nie Yinniang

Cast: Shu Qi, Chang Chen, Zhou Yun, Tsumabuki Satoshi

Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, France 2015

105 mins

Hou Hsiao-hsien’s most recent work is the anti-action film, with aesthetics and technical mastery taking precedence over narrative or meaning.

Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s most recent film, The Assassin, was the darling of the 2015 festival circuit, winning the award for Best Director at Cannes, as well as topping many best-of lists, including Sight and Sound’s. There’s always the danger that a film so critically praised won’t meet the high expectations of its general audience, and that is certainly, and problematically, the case with this martial arts period drama.

Opening with a black and white prologue followed by a transition to colour, The Assassin tells the tale of a woman, taken from her home as a young girl to be trained as an assassin. After her feelings lead her to fail in a mission, she is sent back to her province to remove its powerful governor (Tian Ji’an, played by Chang Chen), who is also her cousin as well as former fiancé. But while Nie Yinniang is a deadly killer, superbly trained by her mistress (who, we later learn, is also her vengeful aunt), she is too independent, too compassionate, to blindly follow her orders, and her mission is muddied by emotional and familial entanglements.

Hou Hsiao-hsien’s version of wuxia is sumptuously shot by cinematographer Ping Ben Lee, capturing nature in all its glory, and with a voluptuous indulgence given to its 9th-century royal setting. Nie Yinniang is a stunning figure, with her long black hair, her stark clothes, providing a contrast to the luxuries enjoyed by her enemies. But while beautifully played by Shu Qi, the assassin is allowed only brief moments of (admittedly brilliant) intensity in the movie’s few fight scenes. The film, a chain of tableaux vivants that all fade to black, is glacially paced, and Nie Yinniang is too often merely an object of beauty, a still figure standing amidst meticulously staged backdrops.

The intricacies of the story are bewildering, with the ‘who’ and the ‘why’ only obliquely revealed as the film lingers on. But rather than lending The Assassin an air of intrigue, these mysteries seem pointlessly and frustratingly obtuse, with the most potent symbolism left to be teased out of a broken piece of jade, while not enough is done to bring the characters to life, to make them whole. Hou Hsiao-hsien deliberately avoids giving its audience any of the pleasures of wuxia, but its take on the genre offers little, and feels like a pale shadow of fellow auteur Wong Kar Wai’s Ashes of Time.

And perhaps that’s not the context in which to view the film, and it shouldn’t be sold as such to audiences. The Assassin is the anti-action film, with aesthetics and technical mastery taking precedence over narrative or meaning. It looks gorgeous, but there’s a shallowness to its beauty. The Assassin, unfortunately, is more still life than cinema.

Sarah Cronin

Watch the trailer: