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last update 24.Oct.15
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The Assassin
dir Hou Hsiao-Hsien
prd Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Huang Wen-Ying
scr Zhong Acheng, Chu T'ien-wen, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Hsieh Hai-Meng
with Shu Qi, Chang Chen, Zhou Yun, Hsieh Hsin-Ying, Sheu Fang-yi, Juan Ching-Tian, Zhen Yu Lei, Fang Mei, Ni Dahong, Chang Shao-Huai, Satoshi Tsumabuki, Jacques Picoux
release Chn 27.Aug.15,
UK Oct.14 lff, US 16.Oct.15
15/China 1h47

london film festival
The Assassin Exquisitely crafted, this film features sumptuous cinematography, costumes and settings. So it's very frustrating that the story is so poorly told. While the basic outline of the plot becomes clear eventually, there's virtually no development to the characters, and the connections between them remain maddeningly vague. This is because the impenetrable dialog never reveals much meaning about the culture or situation.

In the turbulence of 9th century China, Yinniang (Shu) was abducted at 10 and raised by nun princess Jiacheng (Sheu) to be an efficient assassin, but she's not ruthless enough. So Jiacheng assigns her to return home to Weibo to kill her beloved cousin Lord Tian (Chang), to whom she was once betrothed. Jiacheng also has political reasons for this, while Yinniang convinces herself that she can kill him for betraying her by marrying someone else. But her heart isn't so easily controlled. And a series of attacks, betrayals, revelations and interlopers further complicate things.

Filmmaker Hou deliberately avoids making this story clear, muddying the politics with all kinds of personal shadings. Jiacheng's main goal is to rid the land of corrupt politicians, but her heartless plotting ignores the humanity, which is something Yinniang can't see beyond. These thematic currents emerge vividly even if the plot doesn't, so it's easier to understand how the characters feel than who they are and how they're interconnected.

So the only real joy in watching the film comes through the way it's been designed and shot. The production is sumptuous on every level, with costumes that take the breath away and action that's swift and vicious. Shot on 35mm by cinematographer Mark Le Ping Bing, it also has a graininess to it that gives every scene the texture of a fine painting. And at the centre, Shu is utterly magnetic, quietly in control, even though everyone around her thinks they can take her down.

As a wuxia epic, this film is intriguingly muted. Rather than stage the battle sequences as flashy aerial ballets, Hou lets them play out much more naturally as surgically precise acts of survival. Even more intriguingly, the most intense battles are verbal ones, as the political interplay drives the story forward. Or at least it seems to. If Hou had made the narrative more sharply defined, this would have been an utterly riveting thriller. As is, it's head-scratchingly bewildering, resolving its story only in hindsight.

12 themes, violence
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Gold Coast
2.5/5   Guldkysten
dir-scr Daniel Dencik
prd Michael Haslund-Christensen
with Jakob Oftebro, Danica Curcic, John Aggrey, Adam Ild Rohweder, Anders Heinrichsen, Morten Holst, Luise Skov, Mikkel Hilgart, Wakefield Ackuaku, Sophia Adegnika, Michael Oluwasegun Akinola, Evelyn Adovi
oftebro release Den 2.Jul.15,
UK Oct.15 lff
15/Denmark 1h54

london film festival
Gold Coast Beautiful landscapes and an artful, almost experimental approach add heft to this rather pointed drama about colonial Europeans in Africa. Packed with big ideas about how humans bend the laws of nature at their peril, the film is ambitious but also self-important and morally simplistic. And the way the story is told eliminates any opportunity for either narrative kick or emotional resonance.

In 1836, botanist Wulff (Oftebro) has been sent by the King of Denmark to transform the economy of Danish Guinea from slavery to coffee growing. Dreaming about his beloved fiancee (Skov) back home, he dives into his job with the help of mute assistant Lumpa (Aggrey). But obstacles and pressures emerge everywhere. When his plantation is trashed by the Ashanti tribe, he has to negotiate with a powerful local merchant (Ackuaku) for safety. And while the Danish governor (Holst) is supporting, his officers (Rohweder and Heinrichsen) are out for whatever they can get.

Artistically written and filmed, with a quirky electronic Angelo Badalamenti score, the story uses Wulff a as a modern consciousness in an unjust colonial setting. Everyone there tries to convince him that its natural to dominate the locals, exploiting them for labour and sex. The only alternative is to convert them to Christianity and teach them European-style farming and government. Wulff arrives intending to turn this into a slice of Danish paradise and quickly realises he was delusional. By contrast, his colleagues use their authority to benefit personally.

Oftebro gives a thoughtful, committed performance as Wulff, whom one officer notes wears the scent of Denmark: innocence, which will soon fade. Indeed, he's amazed by new species of flowers, the beauty of the forest and untouched landscapes. But instead of losing his curiosity, he bonds with Lumpa and begins to understand the culture, respecting the purity of nature and how all injustice comes from humans. So when he sees the corruption around him, why doesn't he just leave? Or at least take on his colleagues more effectively?

Beautifully shot, the film contrasts lush natural scenes with gold-hued flashbacks and harshly grisly violence. It's also jarringly edited as a collage of experiences, small clips that make the narrative lurch in fits and starts while giving away any upcoming plot twists. Instead the film devolves into operatic madness, wallowing in its meandering story about noble natives and cruel interlopers. And the final message seems to be that you have to accept injustice or you'll go mad.

15 themes, violence, nudity
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Taxi Tehran
5/5     MUST must see SEE
dir-scr-prd Jafar Panahi
with Jafar Panahi, Hana, Omid
omid and panahi release US 2.Oct.16,
UK 30.Oct.15
15/Iran 1h22

london film festival
taxi tehran Banned Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi continues to make sharply clever films that manage to just fit within the rules of his sentence (this is his third). Once again cleverly exploring the nature of filmmaking itself, this film also offers a strikingly earthy, funny exploration of Iranian culture. And human nature.

A taxi driver (Panahi) mounts a camera on his dashboard for security purposes, and it films a series of passengers, including black market DVD seller Omid, two women with a fish bowl, and a lawyer friend with a bunch of roses. At one point, people on the street flag him down to take an injured man to the hospital. He also stops to meet an old friend who wants to show him a video. Eventually he picks up his diva-like young niece Hana from school, and she asks for his help with a filmmaking assignment.

Along the way, the lively passengers chatter about everything from politicians to sharia law, by way of road safety, superstitions and the absurd regulations for making a movie that can be released in Iranian cinemas. These elements are combined in a witty, clever way that plays with the very nature of cinema to capture reality or create, as the censors call it, "sordid realism". With the anecdotal structure, Panahi is recounting a series of short adventures in a variety of cinematic ways.

It's fairly obvious that most of these people are Panahi's friends, and they've been encouraged to improvise about a variety of topics. Others recognise the filmmaker at the wheel of the car and engage him in conversation about his work, trying hilariously to catch him out and spot connections with his famous films. Much of the movie's serendipitous flow is beautifully staged. It's also shot and edited like a proper movie with multiple takes and cameras, although Panahi would obviously deny this.

Some sequences are hysterically chaotic, as none of these people seems able to stop talking for a second. So namedropping Woody Allen is very funny. As are several moments of amusing slapstick. There are also serious scenes, including a man who talks about not wanting to turn in the desperate couple that attacked him because the penalty would be too harsh for them. This extends to Panahi joking about his imprisonment, then going on to explore the injustice in the system. And the ending is pure genius, leaving a big smile on the viewer's face.

PG themes, language, brief grisliness
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4.5/5     MUST must see SEE
dir Sebastian Schipper
scr Sebastian Schipper, Olivia Neergaard-Holm, Eike Frederik Schulz
prd Sebastian Schipper, Catherine Baikousis, Christiane Dressler, Jan Dressler, David Keitsch, Anatol Nitschke
with Laia Costa, Frederick Lau, Franz Rogowski, Burak Yigit, Max Mauff, Andre Hennicke, Anna Lena Klenke, Philipp Kubitza, Hans-Ulrich Laux, Eike Frederik Schulz, Martin Goeres, Dennis Oestreich
costa, lau and rogowski release Ger 11.Jun.15,
US 9.Oct.15, UK 26.Apr.16
15/Germany 2h18

london film festival
Victoria German filmmaker Sebastian Schipper took a big risk shooting this epic romantic thriller in a single unbroken take, and the resulting film not only wows the audience with its technical audacity but also fully engages the emotions. This story of a young woman's two-hour odyssey is genuinely terrifying, darkly touching and thumpingly entertaining.

After a night clubbing in Berlin, Spanish expat Victoria (Costa) meets the flirty Sonne (Lau), and opts to hang out with his friends before her early shift in a cafe. When one guy (Mauff) collapses due to overindulgence, the other two, Boxer and Blinker (Rogowski and Yigit), convince Sonne to ask Victoria to take the fourth spot on a job Boxer needs to do to repay a gangster (Hennicke). Suddenly, Victoria is driving the getaway car at a pre-dawn bank robbery. And nothing goes quite the way it was planned.

To make this work as well as it does requires a blend of seamless improvisation and insane planning, and both are in evidence here. Each encounter feels fresh and real, with gutsy humour and unexpected turns. Meanwhile, Sturla Brandth Grovlen's cinematography is simply remarkable, shifting through closeups, long-shots and everything in between to guide the audience expertly through the narrative. A clever use of focus adds extra meaning, as does the carefully mixed soundtrack, which creates the illusion of a montage even without any cuts.

This style of filmmaking hinges on the skills of the actors, and both Costa and Lau are effortlessly sharp, keeping scenes offhanded while investing emotional depth into even the silliest moments. Costa is especially remarkable, as she's the one who carries the audience through this outrageous journey, and her performance is a superb blend of steeliness, curiosity and quick thinking. Meanwhile, Rogowski and Yigit are wonderful as the comical goons responsible for most of the chaos.

Although it's shot in one long take, Schipper manages to modulate the story to take the viewer on a ride that's not only exhilarating but also funny, romantic, emotional and terrifying. The highs are very, very high, while the darker patches are deeply unnerving. Frankly, it's a miracle that he achieved this in a single two-hour-12-minute take, but the fact that this film exists at all makes it a must-see. And that it's as good as it is makes it a classic.

15 themes, language, violence, drugs, nudity
17.Oct.15 lff
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© 2015 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall