Winner Cannes Un Certain Regard 2015, Golden Eye at Zurich 2015
Will watching an elderly Icelandic sheep farmer make coffee in his lonely kitchen get you on the edge of your seat? Yes. The delicacy with which Sigurður Sigurjónsson (himself a director, writer, comedian) who plays Gummi, expresses his interior life wordlessly is nothing short of superb. In fact, the whole film is utterly compelling.
It tells a true story of feuding brothers who live in some isolation only yards from each other. Their rift is so deep they never speak. One of them internalises his conflict, the other breaks out in acts of competitiveness, drunkeness and angry denial. It’s not an uncommon theme, but what’s less usual is the tenderness with which the narrative is played out through a spare use of event and dialogue. The incidents are small and domestic, taking place almost exclusively (apart from a couple of village scenes) on the two farms. There are many flashes of humour, but it’s a wry humour for the onlooker: the characters are entirely absorbed in dealing with a cruel blow of fate which pushes them to the edge of survival and fractures their obsession. The relentless raw beauty of the Icelandic landscape mirrors their drama and gives it universality without a hint of mawkishness or cliche.
Some have called it ‘heart-warming’, perhaps because the brothers convey essential communications by sheep dog. This does the film and its audience an injustice: it trivialises the sheer quality of filming which renders the ordinary exceptional, and implies that we need a palliative to shield us from extremity. If I want my heart warmed I go to Facebook. I go to the cinema (usually) for a heightened experience and the refinement and pathos of this film have returned to me every day since I saw it three weeks ago.
‘Assassin’ Director Hou Hsiau Hsien. Winner Cannes Best Director award 2015.
This is another film in which the visuals do most of the talking. It’s the Taiwanese director’s 18th film and winner of multiple awards. The pace is slow, broken sporadically by scenes of breath-stopping violence in which the assassin triumphs. Dialogue is terse and subtitles are a further reduction, making an already elusive plot hard to follow at times, (though this, dear reader, is beside the point). The imagery is stunning without pause, but again it’s the subtle use of the visual to express mental states and transformations which is most alluring.
This time the action takes place within the luxurious interiors of 9th century palaces and the forests around them. The luxury is beyond excessive. Every interior is sumptuous, swathed in finest silk embroidered hangings, lit only by smoking lamps. It seems to stifle: there’s political instability, but the men seem unable to take decisive action; the women, constrained by the heavy formality of their costumes, sit becushioned and bejewelled in virtual immobility, clinging to tradition.
The Assassin, by contrast, has led a life of austerity and rigour with no room for indecision. She is on a mission designed by her mentor to cauterise the remaining sensibilities which bring her short of ruthless perfection. It is to kill her former betrothed. Dressed in simple black, she is as thin and lethal as bamboo. Unseen, she begins to haunt the palaces. A key image is the way she is revealed and hidden moment by moment as a breeze moves layers of gossamer hangings. As we observe, she too observes and her perception of her situation becomes more opaque, more fluid; the significance of her mission more layered with consequence than her mountain-living mentor could contemplate. She begins to intervene in the life of her intended victim, averting disaster like a classical goddess or Shakespearean sprite. By the end, human attachments, a balanced relationship to the past, between the ideal and the real, these are given their proper place.
Both these directors, by keeping to a minimum a reliance on literary devices of incident and dialogue, show cinema at the top of it’s game.