Friday, 30 October 2015

THE ASSASSIN: HOU HSIAO-HSIEN AT THE LONDON FILM FESTIVAL

I mentioned The Assassin yesterday, when I posted a 20-year old essay I'd written on Tsui Hark. My entry into wuxia films came via Hark and the London Film Festival; the offbeat The Butterfly Murders and Zu: Warriors Of Magic Mountain, and they seemed to trigger the explosion of Hong Kong cinema in Britain and elsewhere in the Eighties. I mentioned in my review of Hark's The Lovers its slow pace, a real change from the frantic action and cutting we associate with wuxia, and it is against that tradition that I watched the The Assassin.

Hong Kong swordplay is easier to follow these days, the production values are more Hollywood, the pace more classic, the storytelling more linear. In that context, Hou Hsiao-Hsien seems to be working almost with a deconstruction of the genre, yet one done as if creating its ultimate apex. It looks both outward and extremely inward at the same time; as I watched the long and wrenchingly beautiful shots of landscape, and the slow takes, even in action scenes, I found myself thinking of Bresson's Lancelot du Lac, which took its epic heroism and brought it down to a realistic, dirty, creaking and slow stereogramme, as if to take apart filmmaking as well as the myth it purveys. His knights are just simple people in tin suits, clanking around a landscape on which Bresson's camera lingers long after they've left the shot.

In a similar way, Hou's landscape transcends those marching through it. But rather than being reduced, it is magnified in beauty, highlighted and savoured. It is something that will last. In great westerns, the landscape is something bigger than man, threatening not least for the other men it contains. In John Ford movies men move through it as if on their way to conquer or tame it. But here we are presented with the definite picture of something that will endure long after the machinations of Chinese courts and the battling of deadly fighters has passed. Ford's audience knew the west had been conquered. Hou's knows that for centuries, the landscape has endured.

In ninth-century China, Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi) is an assassin, trained by nuns to kill officials deemed corrupt or dangerous by the court. But she fails to kill one such target, because he is holding his infant son, and even though he takes a parting shot at her, which she parries, she leaves him. The mother superior is angry, and as punishment sends Nie back to Weibo, the most powerful province in the empire, where she wants the governor Tian Ji'ang (Chang Chen) killed. But Nie was once betrothed to Tian, before her family gave her up to the nuns. She heads to Waibo, and when she arrives the film changes: in a Wizard of Oz moment the high-contrast black and white (Nie's black outfit and her mistresses white garb work like a glorious take on western cliche) in 'Academy' ratio (1.375:1) changes to colour and widescreen 1.85:1. Shots are framed like paintings or screens, and held for appreciation, not just of Mark Lee Ping Bing's camerawork, but of the landscapes themselves.

The story now becomes one of Nie's inner discovery, defying her mistress and finding ways to maintain her inner self as she does. At times the story, slow as it is, becomes hard to follow: there is much plotting, debating, and ambiguity in the intrigue of China's hierarchy. In effect, Nie's newfound strength is the one sure thing in the film.

The Assassin is a showcase for Lee's camerawork, and especially for Shu Qi, whose performance as the quiet heroine brings a touch of the Clint Eastwood while suggesting inner turmoil underneath the cool skill. It's worthy of awards, and will resonate to any audience. Within the visual beauties of landscape, interiors, and costumes whose tones seem to echo the characters' emotions while maintaining a sense of distance, Hou Hsiao-Hsien's take on wuxia is both captivating and thought-provoking.

TSUI HARK'S THE LOVERS: London Film Festival 1995

I was going through my old files to find a piece I'd written for the New York Times (actually, I'd written it for the International Herald Tribune, and the Times had reprinted it) and discovered the manuscript (remember when we actually wrote on paper) for this story, which doesn't appear to have been published. Sadly, I didn't get enough time with Tsui Hark to write more; I literally didn't discover the Sunday morning interview until I arrived at the Friday late night showing of The Lovers; as I recall it was long on clips and short on discussion (Hark's English was surprisingly shaky for someone who'd gone to SMU; well, maybe not so surprisingly), and he was literally on his way out of town. I've been meaning for some time to write about some of Tsui's more recent films, namely Seven Swords (2005) and Detective Dee (2010). Maybe soon....oh, and the cinematographer who went with me to see Once Upon A Time In China was Phil Abraham, who went on to The Sopranos and Mad Men, and is now a director. Having just seen Hou Hsiao-Hsien's The Assassin in this year's London Film Festival, it seemed a good time to get this essay online.




THE MYSTERIOUS APPEARANCE OF TSUI HARK

His Guardian Interview wasn't mentioned in the programme, but if you were lucky enough to discover it was happening, the highlight of the 39th London Film Festival might have been listening to Vietnamese-born, American-trained Hong Kong director Tsui Hark give a Sunday morning lecture at the NFT. Or maybe it was seeing his latest film, The Lovers, in a late-night showing two days earlier.

Why Hark should have come and gone so anonymously is a puzzle. His first film, The Butterfly Murders, has been a cult favourite in Britain ever since it debuted at the LFF in 1979. Shanghai Blues (1984) was a 1930s Chinese screwball comedy set amidst the Japanese invasion, while Peking Opera Blues two years later, which also starred the wonderful Sally Yeh, was an action-packed musical about a woman disguising herself to actually sing in the Peking opera. It was a hit at London's Lesbian and Gay Festival, but to me it ranks as one of the best movies of the Eighties, period. And Once Upon A Time In China (1990) stands as a classic as well; I took an American cinematographer to see it in New York and he was blown away. And if that weren't enough, Hark also produced three excellent John Woo/Chow Yun Fat films, including A Better Tomorrow and the world-wide hit, The Killer.

Hark works like the great directors of Hollywood's Golden Age, telling richly layered stories that often meld and combine genres, constantly looking for new ways to be visually inventive. Though themes of class and imperial politics, gender identity and reality versus fantasy recur, his signature is a breakneck pace of storytelling that always has time for humour.

The Lovers, a romantic melodrama set in 377 AD is atypical in its slower, more contemplative pace. It tells the story of Chuk Ying Toi (Charlie Yeung), the daughter of a high official and his ambitious wife. They disguise her as a boy and send her to college to prepare her for marriage into a better family. At college she meets Leung Shan Pak (Nicky Wu), a peasant boy who is seeking education so he can earn an official's position and make an upwardly mobile marriage.

Shan-Pak finds himself desperately confused by his feelings for his fellow student, until true identities are revealed. But at this point, the story heads for tragedy. Beautifully staged and shot, The Lovers puts our Austen and Dickens adaptations to shame. And the deliberate pacing, such a contrast if you know Hark's work, now squeezes the increasingly inevitable tragedy for all its worth. Hark can thus go somewhat over the top in his tragic ending, yet still reinforce themes and images he's shown you subtly and allowed to linger throughout the film.

Born in Saigon, and having studied film at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Hark brings a cross-cultural sensibility to Hong Kong cinema. 'In Hong Kong, things move so fast,' he says. 'You do something for the first time and six months later everyone's doing it. The audience is visually very literate, and they expect to be entertained on many levels."

And did I mention that in The Lovers, the college's headmistress invents both football and its Subbeto version, just in passing?

Saturday, 24 October 2015

MAUREEN O'HARA: A Moment's Memory, RIP

Angharad's look across to Mr. Gruffydd as he stands at the top of the lift shaft, looking at the empty cage....

RIP Maureen O'Hara. Still her finest moment. How Green Was My Valley, still John Ford's most restrained and moving sentimentality. And watch her in The Wings Of Eagles, maybe her best, The Quiet Man or not, with John Wayne.


Monday, 19 October 2015

MICHAEL CONNELLY'S THE CROSSING

Mark Billingham and I discussed The Crossing on the second edition of The Crime Vault Live podcast (you can link to that here); we both loved it. Mark said he thought Connelly was the most consistent crime writer in America. It was funny, because I said pretty much the same thing, that Bosch was the strongest series being written by anyone, but that was when I first reviewed Connelly in the Spectator more than 20 years ago. They used that quote as a blurb on a number of his books. What's amazing is that he's maintained that level of quality for such a long time.

This one is a Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller novel; Bosch has lost his job on the LAPD, as detailed in the previous Bosch novel, and Haller is representing him in his wrongful dismissal suit. But Haller also has a client named Da'Quan Foster, who's accused of a particularly violent home-invasion rape and murder, of an LA sherrif's wife. Although the state has DNA evidence they claim links Foster to the crime, he insists he's innocent. And Haller, who's not always worried about whether his clients are innocent or not, for some reason believes him, and wants Harry to check it out.

Bosch isn't ready to cross to the dark side, as it were, risking the severance of all his ties with his colleagues and friends. But if Haller's aim is to clear his client, Harry's aim is always to get at the truth. And when he finds an expensive watch case with no watch, he starts to wonder where the truth might lay. Relentlessly, painstakingly, Bosch breaks down the case bit by bit, the pieces slowly taking shape into something coherent, and very dangerous.

Nobody writes police procedurals as well as Connelly. You don't have to have followed Bosch for the quarter of a century he's been doing this; you don't need to know his past and have deep background to understand his character. Connelly's skill is that he writes as a reporter, and he gives you the details you need not just to follow the plot, but to understand the characters, and at his best, as he is here, you find that understanding melds with the understanding of the story.

Harry and Haller are half-brothers; their daughters are the same age, and will be going to the same college, another sort of crossing. As is Harry's forced retirement, and perhaps his personal life, though I don't want to risk a spoiler there—long time readers know better than to expect romantic happiness for Bosch. Mark and I discussed the character, with Mark saying he now sees Titus Welliver, who plays Bosch in the excellent Amazon series, when he's reading. But my Bosch is different. I've always seen, right from the start, someone more like Hammett's Continental Op, crossed perhaps with Gene Hackman, the one from Night Moves maybe. He's as good as they get, and that's because Michael Connelly is as good as it gets.

The Crossing by Michael Connelly

Orion, £19.99 ISBN 9781409145523

This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

Saturday, 17 October 2015

HENNING MANKELL'S AN EVENT IN AUTUMN

My copy of the book was sitting in the pile, waiting to be read, and then Henning Mankell died, and I wrote my piece (you can read that here) and said my bit on The Crime Vault Live (follow the link you'll find here), and the very next day after that I read the story but found I couldn't write about it right away.

Although it's billed as a 'never-before published' novella, An Event In Autumn was not actually Mankell's final Wallander book; it was originally published in 2004 in the Netherlands, as a give away for people who bought books. It was the basis of one of the BBC Wallander TV shows, and finally Mankell took it back and published it in 2013. It is set, as Mankell explains in a brief afterword, just before The Troubled Man, which ended the series (you can read my review here), and it is very much an autumnal book, the metaphor as pure and shining as snow. Not only for the autumn of the character's life, but the autumn of the character in the author's mind, echoing his own autumn (Wallander was 'born' in Mankell's own birth year, 1948).

Wallander is thinking about buying an old house that belongs to his colleague Martinsson's wife's cousin. He's pretty much convinced himself to buy when a nagging thought forces him to look one more time. He returns and finds a skeleton hand poking up from the ground. The skeleton is of a middle-aged woman, and it's been in the ground some 60 years. Wallander no longer wants to buy the house.

The investigation is classic Wallander; slow, somewhat plodding, but complete; always asking the next question and leaving nothing unanswered. The mystery is solved through this plodding work, but the story ends with a somewhat deus ex machina twist. But that isn't really the point.

'It was getting colder' is how one early chapter ends, and like a long poem lines similar to that recur at the end of many other stanzas. At the same time, we are presented with Swedishness, people who only speak when they have something to say, neighbours being neighbours, not friends, and with the prospect of life in old-age homes, where the inner silence and the outer silence merge. It may be what Mankell has called 'the Swedish anxiety'.

In its own quiet way, this is a powerful piece of writing. It's as if its setting the stage for the last Wallander book, and it even recalls 'Wallander's First Case', which appeared in the collection The Pyramid. (You can read my review of that here). It makes an interesting bookend to that fascinating career. Mankell himself writes about Wallander in an essay appended to the story, dated 2013. It's interesting as much for what is left out as for what is included, but it's good for putting the character into the place in which the author would like him to rest. May he rest in that place, and in the ones many of us have made for him in our own imaginations.


An Event In Autumn by Henning Mankell
Vintage, £6.99, ISBN 9781784700843

NOTE: This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

Sunday, 11 October 2015

THE CRIME VAULT LIVE! EPISODE 2

The second episode of The Crime Vault Live is online now, and it's a good one (if I do say so myself). Mark Billingham and I interview the erudite and wonderful Val McDermid about Tartan Noir, series detective novels, Jane Austen, Raith Rovers and everything you'd expect; we discuss the passing of Henning Mankell; highlight Michael Connelly's The Crossing, Ruth Rendell's final novel, Kareem-Adbul Jabaar's take on Mycroft Holmes, and Lawrence Block's take on pulpy Gold Medal-style fiction. There's a digression onto the franchising of characters like Sherlock Holmes and James Bond (you ought to hear the rundown of Holmes' pastiches that was left on the cutting room floor!). There's talk about the Beck TV series, The Corpse Of Anna Fritz and Sherlock in the London Film Festival; the audio book versions of Ngaio Marsh, and there is music by Elvis Costello (thank you Mr.Costello sir, for the kind permission). All in a very listenable 50 minutes, believe it or not.

Here's a link via soundcloud but you can also find it on ITunes, at The Crime Vault website, & through many other noise providers on the interweb. Smash that link now!

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

HENNING MANKELL: IN MEMORIAM

Henning Mankell was important as a crime writer because his Wallander books sparked what had become an explosion of Scandinavian crime fiction which went nuclear after The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and I find it hard to believe that Steig Larsson wasn't inspired in some way by The Fifth Woman one of the best of the Wallander series.

Otherwise, Mankell's influence was more in terms of marketing than style, though you can see a good bit of him in the best of the Nordic writers, Iceland's Arnaldur Indridason. But Mankell himself was influenced by the godfathers of modern Scandinavian crime fiction, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo and their ten Martin Beck books. Like Beck, Wallander is a dour detective with a depressing private life, and functions within an ensemble cast that both complements and contrasts with him. Mankell spends more time on Wallander himself, perhaps, which reflects the changing times to some extent (our literary cult of fictional personality) but also reflects Sjowall and Wahloo's own influences, especially Ed McBain's 87th Precinct.

Mankell was often dismissive of the label 'crime writer', but he was very generous to Sjowall and Wahloo, and wrote the introduction to the Harper Perennial reissue of the first Beck novel, Roseanna. When I wrote the introduction to Murder At The Savoy in the same series, I noted that its basic premise, the death of an industrial with fingers in many shady multi-national deals, is mirrored in Mankell's The Man Who Smiled (a very Martin Beck sort of title), and noted a few other parallels in the series. I also quoted the description of Beck's colleague Fredrik Melander, logical, calm, dull, with a 'modest' sense of humour, an excellent memory, and a propensity for being in the toiler whenever he was needed. As Sjowall and Wahloo wrote: 'briefly, he was a first-class policeman'. The one time I interviewed Mankell, appropriately enough at the Savoy (but in London, not Malmo) I asked if Wallander were in some ways an hommage to Melander. 'Oh, did they write that?' he replied. He also had little false modesty; I asked him who the man was who had greeted him just before we sat down. 'Oh, he's Sweden's second greatest novelist,' he said.


What also links Mankell to Sjowall and Wahloo was their dissection of the failures of Sweden's experiment in Social Democracy from a perspective often noted to be left-wing, but more accurately described as true to the ideals of that experiment. Mankell's political commitment is strong throughout his work, both in Sweden and Mozambique, and strongly consistent to a sense of rational help for those who need help and justice, and a society based on those principles. It was no surprise he chose to sail on the flotilla of ships trying to bring humanitarian aid to Gaza, it was even less of a surprise that he reported the summary murder of 10 activists by masked Israeli commandos, and refuted very simply and strongly allegations that the killings were self-defense. He had a field day with the fact that he was captured in international waters, brought to Israel, and then charged by the Orwellian government with entering the country illegally.

Wallander was well-served by television. Rolf Lassgard nailed his character, but Krister Henriksson was justifiably more popular, because he brought some humour to Wallender, just through his quick smile and twinkle in his eye; it made his interactions with the rest of the ensemble less confrontational. Kenneth Branagh's Wallander virtually eliminated the ensemble, concentrating on the superficial problems of Wallander's life, most notably drinking and shaving. It's good that the series has not been continued, like the Beck which for all its strengths has little of Sjowall and Wahloo left to recommend it. And it should be noted that Henriksson's performance in the final Wallander story, The Troubled Man, is every bit as touching as Mankell's own conclusion to the series (and it's one of the most overtly political of the series as well).

There isn't much humour in the books; Mankell wrote a comic novel, Tea Bag, about literary types and immigration—the humane portion about the life of immigrants in Sweden works muich better than the literary comedy. But his work for children is surprisingly good, including Chronicler Of The Winds, an adult story based on a play written to be performed in Portugese, in his adopted Maputo.

Faceless Killers, the first Wallander book, is a good place to start. One Step Behind and Fifth Woman are my idea of the series' best. I'd also recommend his 2006 novel Depths, (you can read my review of that book here), set on bleak islands in the archipelago during World War I; it is to my mind the most Bergmanesque bit of Swedish writing I've encountered (reminiscent of Strindberg as well) and deeply moving. Of course Mankell was married to Eva Bergman, Ingmar's daughter, which may or may not mean anything.

We discuss Mankell in the second episode of The Crime Vault Live; I could not do the same on BBC Front Row that night because we were recording CVL at the same time. I might have said that sometime in the future people will look at Mankell as a transitory figure, between the trail-blazing of Sjowall and Wahloo and the worldwide phenomenon of Steig Larsson. But he's more important than that, and the consistency of his vision for both his iconic character, his other work, and beyond fiction to his country and the world; in many ways he represents the moral focus of the Swedish character. This should make him a major figure no matter from what distance literary critics are looking back.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

ROBERT B PARKER'S BULL RIVER BY ROBERT KNOTT

When I reviewed Ironhorse, the first of Robert Knott's continuations of Robert B Parker's Cole & Hitch westerns, I said I thought that the book lacked space for the heroes and villains to interact (you can read the whole review here), meaning a promising set-up is allowed to peter out. Bull River suffers from almost exactly the same problem, which is a shame because the set-up is, if anything, even better.

Virgil and Everett have captured a bizarre Mexican bandit known as Capitan Alejandro, and when they deliver him to San Cristobal they discover the local bank has been looted by its own president, who later turns up beaten comatose, with his wife disappeared or kidnapped by the actual robbers, after a Friends Of Eddie Coyle-style robbery. Which puts Cole & Hitch on the hunt, and coincidentally enough, the Capitan knows the robbers and where they might be.

As in the first novel, we then get a lot of traveling, back and forth, and not really enough tension and precious little confrontation. You can see where the former is waiting to build, especially when the boys are on a train with a Mexican officer who's clearly suspicious, but it never really does, and both the major shootouts are relatively perfunctory, because with Parker they were all about personality, and expressed verbally, whereas here they are diagrammed and drawn, in both sense of the latter word.

More important, however, is the interplay of Cole and Hitch. Everett Hitch narrates, telling Cole's story more than his own, but these two are not like Spenser and Hawk as much as they are the two parts of Spenser: the ego (Cole) and super-ego (Hitch) moderating the gunfighter's id. It's important to get that dynamic expressed in their conversations, but Knott's not able to do that, not even in the other situation where the two express different parts of the Spenserian being: relations with women. Even when Hitch relaxes comfortably with another of the 'liberated' women he seems to encounter regularly, we don't get the obvious contrast with Cole's relationship with Allie French. This lack is striking, because the bank president's wife could well be another Allie, and you would expect that possibility to be noted more than in passing.

Cole & Hitch are such a good pair of characters, and so well delineated by Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen, that their personalities, even the shadow of them, can carry a story enough to keep the reader going. But there isn't the frisson of doubt that Parker managed; the nature of Hitch's protective worry, the slight hint of self-doubt that Allie brings about in Virgil. I miss that.

Bull River by Robert Knott
Berkeley Books $9.99 ISBN 9780425272305