This is the Best Sci-Fi of the Decade (So Far)

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Almost every decade since the sixties has had its hallmark sci-fi film that engenders a paradigm shift in what we believe is impossible. In 1968, Stanley Kubrick created a visionary tale about the history and future of mankind and to this very day 2001: A Space Odyssey stands as an iconic pinnacle of filmmaking. Nine years later, another masterpiece of science fiction was born when George Lucas released the first (or fourth) episode of his Star Wars series. Soon afterwards, the technological advance of filmmaking rapidly enabled and enhanced the production of scary brilliant stories spawned by the likes of Ridley Scott (Alien, 1979; Blade Runner, 1982) and Steven Spielberg, who made one of the highest grossing sci-fi films in history: Jurassic Park (1993). Before the turn of the 21st century the Wachowskis conceived The Matrix (1999), a revolutionary vision that amazed the world by its visuals and ideas. By then, CGI (computer-generated imagery), green screens, and many more techniques had become standard in the making of any visually stunning sci-fi movie and 2009 witnessed some of the most impressive feats such as James Cameron’s Avatar, Neill Blomkamp’s District 9, and Duncan Jones’ Moon.

Even though there are still four more years ahead of us, it’s as good a time as any to examine the turning points in sci-fi filmmaking of the 2010s. This decade started on a high note with Christopher Nolan’s mind boggling puzzle Inception (2010) and in the years that followed few films, if any, matched its artistry. Among the noteworthy achievements are low budget indies like Another Earth (2011) and Coherence (2013), as well as major studio productions like Gravity (2013) and Edge of Tomorrow (2014). In late 2014, Nolan made a strong comeback with another Oscar-winning film; Interstellar pushed the boundaries of filmmaking through its gorgeous and scientifically accurate space visuals, not to mention its perplexing plot of time-twisting and space-bending adventures. Last year signified a surge of masterful sci-fi filmmaking that included the return of excellent filmmakers and long-awaited franchises: Ridley Scott’s The Martian, J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens, George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road and Alex Garland’s splendid directorial debut Ex Machina.

All the aforementioned 2010 productions, whether due to their exquisite visual and sound effects or wonderful stories, surprised and impressed us on different levels but personally none of them left that distinctly unforgettable mark in my mind. I greatly appreciate and admire all of them for many reasons but they don’t quite do it like Jonathan Glazer’s latest. In 2013, Glazer gifted us with a unique film that did more than its fellow sci-fi tales. Under the Skin (2013), originally a Michel Faber novel, is not a CGI extravaganza that boasts of its visual tricks – the now-accepted ABC of any sci-fi movie – and in that sense it surpasses the expectations of the common moviegoer. Many have told of aliens yet Glazer’s portrayal of alien life is exceptional. The film’s focus is an alien predator albeit of a very unusual nature and with more unusual aims, roaming the streets of Scotland to lure men into darkness. Casting Scarlett Johansson for the role is quite unexpected as her face is one of the most distinguishable in the industry; this casting choice seems to be only the beginning of a long process carefully carried out by Glazer whose vision is not to merely tell another alien story, on the contrary, it is to expose a human one. Under the Skin poses one of the most important philosophical questions of all time: what is it to be human? Unlike philosophers, Glazer attempts to answer this question by observing aliens not humans, or more accurately by observing aliens craving humanity.

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In its opening sequence, the film demonstrates the human entity as its most basic function: a machine. The sequence shows the alien’s birth, or rather the transmogrification of the alien into its human (dis)guise. The audience can see the formation of a pupil as several spherical structures come together to form a human eye. In voice over, the alien is slowly practicing the English language by vocalizing letters and sounds. The alien undergoes two key changes to “become” human, if only externally, the first is to gain a human form, specifically eyes, and the second is to learn language. The conception of the alien-human tells us that, at the simplest level, being human is essentially being a processing machine; with eyes to receive data from the external world and language to communicate data to the external world. Afterwards, the alien begins its journey in Scotland where the first thing she does is shop for clothes and make-up. This step addresses a social aspect of being human: to be accepted as an individual in society, one must look like others. This fact is evident now more than ever as xenophobia is a world-wide plague ravaging even the most liberal of societies (read: burkini ban). The shopping mall scene may seem simple and straightforward in the context of the plot. The alien after all needs to clothe itself regardless of social acceptance. However, the focused shots on women in make-up do tackle an important human trait; humans always crave acceptance and to achieve that they usually resort to physical conformity.

In one of the film’s most striking scenes, the alien is standing by the sea and starts a conversation with a foreign swimmer when they notice a child drowning and his mother rushing after him trying to reach for him as the father lags behind her, struggling against the waves. The moment the swimmer sees them, he leaves the alien and dashes to save the father. Meanwhile, the alien apathetically watches the tragic scene from afar. She does not react in any way and only approaches the swimmer to kidnap him for her own agenda, abandoning the dead family. The juxtaposition of the swimmer’s reaction and the alien’s lack of one establishes another characteristic human quality: emotive response, a sense of duty and responsibility for fellow man, even conscience. A key feature of humans is their humanity and this is exemplified through the sharp emotional contrast between human and alien in this scene.

Throughout the first hour of the film, countless shots of people on the street are used to show the audience the environment which the alien now inhabits. She drives a white van and wanders the streets looking for her next prey. Scottish strangers of different genders and ages are filmed crossing the street, shopping, dancing, drinking, conversing with friends, mostly doing mundane daily acts that all people do. These shots are the most direct illustration of human activity and they aid in familiarizing the alien with her new home and in contrasting her behavior with theirs.

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During the second half, the film takes a turn as it explores a new dimension of the alien’s character. She’s no longer satisfied by carrying out her deadly missions and gradually expresses a core human attribute: curiosity. At first, she was nothing more than a huntress on a mission but throughout the rest of the film she becomes curious about her form, her environment, and all the possibilities that come with becoming human. Her becoming is charted chronologically in five stages that depict her curiosity unleashed in forms of examination of body, experimentation, emotional activation, openness to art, and sexual awakening.

The first stage is rooted in self-perception. Although the mirror is an object familiar to the alien – she uses it at the beginning of the film to put on make-up – it is used differently during this stage. The alien examines her face in a mirror, staring at it in bewilderment. Later, she poses naked in front of a standing mirror and studies her figure as her hands wander over its unblemished terrain. These two shots exemplify an important transition in the alien’s development. She now possesses a personal gaze with which she observes her physical self; the idea of observing one’s body is a simple but significant feature of her becoming and it drinks from the everlasting well of curiosity. She becomes curious, she looks. The next stage of the alien’s becoming is experimentation. Perhaps more clearly correlated to curiosity, this stage is where the alien crosses the lines drawn for her to try new things. She goes to a restaurant and orders a slice of cake. Glazer presents her first interaction with food in close-up to emphasize the experience; the alien’s mouth opens to receive a small piece of cake seated on a fork. She barely chews then quickly spits it out in disgust. The alien follows her curiosity and ventures beyond the limits of her missions to get a taste of the human life, even if turns out to be unappealing to her virgin taste buds. These initial two stages target the primitive physical aspects of the human life: the body, its form, and its needs. As the alien’s curiosity grows, her adventures progress into more complicated aspects of the human experience.

The third and fourth stages of the alien’s becoming illustrate her maturation as she grapples with higher level processes of human behavior. The third stage is emotional activation; the alien’s curiosity surpasses materialistic goals and targets social connection to others. On one of her missions, the alien picks up a man with a severely deformed face, and like all previously captured prey, she takes him home to seduce him into oblivion and death. However, this time her approach to the man is different in two respects. Firstly, when she picks him up she does not treat him like she did other men. She employs her standard flirtatious tricks but she also touches him and invites him to touch her. They hold hands and she guides his palm over her cheek and neck. Such interaction marks a first for the alien in the realm of sensual experience for although her main mission involves the utilization of sex to hunt men the process never escalates to actual intercourse or even touch. Secondly, this encounter with man is different because the alien lets him go at the end of the night and does not capture him as she did with previous prey. These two decisions represent the growth of the alien’s emotive response, which was otherwise nonexistent. Her curiosity pushed her to reach out to an alien lifeform (from her point of view) and feel sympathy and responsibility towards him to eventually prioritize her conscious emotional state over her mission. After abandoning her mission, the alien feels despondent and walks the streets aimlessly until a stranger offers his help. Although at first reluctant, she finally accepts and goes with him home where he provides her with the night’s accommodation and later they spend more time together. This second instance of emotional connection is evidence of the alien’s morphing into a social animal. Earlier in the film, strangers were lured by the alien back to her place but now the tables are turned and she goes along with a stranger. Her decision to go home with the stranger exemplifies a reversal of roles which denotes her transformation into a more human entity. The fourth stage is potentially the strongest symbol of the alien’s evolution and assimilation into the human collective. A song plays and as the alien listens to it, she taps her fingers along its beat. A seemingly simple act but it nevertheless indicates the alien’s perception of music and symbolizes her openness to culture, specifically art.

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The fifth stage is a combination of both physical and emotional curiosity: sexual awakening. After the alien spends a day out with the stranger, they go back to his flat and start making out in bed. He undresses her slowly and intends to penetrate her when she pushes him away in a jolt. She approaches a standing mirror and spreads her legs, looking more closely at what’s between them. Her sudden sexual rejection is not based on a reassessment of their relationship; it’s due to her new found knowledge of her own female anatomy. Unlike a young teenager who slowly comes to understand what genitals are and how they function over time, the alien receives such information one moment before sexual intercourse and it shocks her completely. The shock generates curiosity about her body and provides a glimpse into her perception of herself as a sexual being; a typical feature of human growth.

These five stages delineate the alien’s becoming, her integration into the human experience. However, in a single final scene Glazer perfects the definitive moment where the alien can truly be branded human. After wandering alone in the woods, the alien seeks refuge in a rest house where she accidentally falls asleep only to be woken up by a man’s hands crawling underneath her trousers. She jumps up and runs away but is eventually chased and held down in the middle of the woods. The man forces himself on her and gradually strips her until, to his shock, her skin starts peeling off to reveal a black interior. He retreats. She disintegrates as her skin slides off her coal-like form. As she crawls away, the man returns and pours gasoline over her body and sets fire to it. This last minute climax provides the perfect conclusion to the alien’s becoming: injustice. Being subjected to injustice is an inextricable part of the human experience. Whether in the context of war ravaged homelands, political corruption, economic gaps, chronic disease, emotional afflictions, or spiritual suffering, all humans endure one form of injustice or another during their lifetime and this satisfies a criterion of being human.

So what is it to be human? Is it to satisfy bodily needs? Is it to emotionally connect to others? Is it to suffer injustice? Or is it to be curious? To be curious to a deadly extent that leads to one’s own scorching demise and consumption? Through his film Under the Skin (2013), Jonathan Glazer argues for the latter through the changes his alien heroine experiences when she gradually mutates to a human persona as a result of her fizzing curiosity. His exploration of this philosophical problem is a captivating 108-minute film that outshines the more traditional sci-fi productions we’ve encountered this decade so far. I do not underestimate the quality of recent sci-fi films for they too tackle crucial issues such as the stamina of the human spirit. Yet Glazer’s vision is distinctly singular in its approach, whether technical or thematic, for expressing our base and complex nature, our desires and dreams, and our worst fears about our humanity. Glazer amazes; he takes the road less traveled and chooses to tell us about ourselves through a sci-fi marvel that uncovers the mysteries lying under our skin.

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Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy – Favorite Moments

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Before Sunrise (1995)

Think of it like this: jump ahead, ten, twenty years, okay, and you’re married. Only your marriage doesn’t have that same energy that it used to have, y’know. You start to blame your husband. You start to think about all those guys you’ve met in your life and what might have happened if you’d picked up with one of them, right? Well, I’m one of those guys. That’s me y’know, so think of this as time travel, from then, to now, to find out what you’re missing out on. See, what this really could be is a gigantic favor to both you and your future husband to find out that you’re not missing out on anything. I’m just as big a loser as he is, totally unmotivated, totally boring, and, uh, you made the right choice, and you’re really happy.

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I kind of see this all love as this, escape for two people who don’t know how to be alone.

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I always liked the idea of all those unknown people lost in the world.

The moment Jesse mouthed “yes” at 1:06

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Before Sunset (2004)

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But we’re not real anyway, right? We’re just, uh, characters in that old lady’s dream. She’s on her deathbed, fantasizing about her youth. So of course we had to meet again.

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Before Midnight (2013)

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I fucked up my whole life because of the way you sing.

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When they watch the sun as it sets

But if you want true love, then this is it. This is real life. It’s not perfect, but it’s real.

Drive – A Smooth Ride of Stunning Suspense

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Drive (2011)

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn

3/5

Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive is a film about watching, observing, and absorbing. Its cinematography and production design lure us into looking more than listening. And when we look, we’re captivated by the choreography of the camera and the color within each frame.

The film includes several tracking shots, some of which are excellently executed as the characters walk towards the camera then stop then continue. These tracking shots are not elaborate and do not announce themselves like the more noticeable shots made by Lubezki, instead they ask us to move our eyes in the frame and look at more than just the tracked subject. Within the frame there are more than bodies, we can see facial expressions and subtle hand and eye movements, all of which illustrate relationships between characters. The camera does not track characters; it tracks the growth of tension between characters.

However, it is color that is the film’s highlighting characteristic. The film’s dominated by shades of blue, only opposed by orange and yellow hues in the presence of Irene (Carey Mulligan). The balance between blue and orange is beautifully painted in many of the shot-reverse-shot scenes involving the driver (perfected by Ryan Gosling’s expressive eyes) and Irene. Our eyes shift between the driver’s cold desolate blue aura and the warm embracing orange halo enveloping Irene, feeling the driver’s longing for her warm affection.

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Although the film invites us to look, its protagonist rarely looks at himself. The low angle camera shots of the driver, the tracking shots following him, the close-ups on his face and eyes in the rear view mirror all objectify him as the main center of our attention and gaze. Yet the driver’s own eyes do not wander where ours do. The multiple dissolve shots of his face and the city, or his face and Irene’s, convey a message of one lost in others, be they people or environments; one looking for a host, a home. We do not get a lot of background information about the driver’s past. We’re only allowed a limited amount of information about what he does: he drives. The first shot alone is a concise introduction to his identity: his yellow scorpion jacket, his maps and bags, and his voice during a phone call. That’s how he is presented to us: a job, a tool, a means to an end. Little to no extra details about his character are given later. His emotions are revealed through his reactions to Irene and her child, to Standard (Oscar Isaac), to Shannon (Bryan Cranston), but none of these are unraveled elaborately to show us who the driver really is.

The intensity of car chases and murders are enhanced by the atypical absence of music. The suspense is not roped around thrilling music but tightly wound by the sound of silence. Our anticipation is upped by camerawork and the accompanying revving engines and screeching tires.

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It’s only in the second half of the film that we get a glimpse into a darker corner of the driver’s persona. Refn is known for his blatant violence, at times romanticized as in Only God Forgives, and at others served cold as in Drive. The most important scene which exposes the driver’s nature through the use of violence is the elevator scene. His eyes see the stranger’s gun, his hands move Irene away, his lips kiss hers. The shot is beautifully accentuated through lighting as the elevator lights dim and only the driver and Irene are highlighted amidst their passionate kiss; a stolen moment, an escape from reality, salvation. The lights come back, the driver turns around and bashes the stranger’s head with his foot mercilessly, to death. Irene steps out of the elevator terrified and the doors close on the driver’s bloodied face; a stranger. The juxtaposition of the kiss and the murder in the same setting demonstrates the paradoxical personality, or rather the possibility of a natural amalgam of purity and impurity in one body; this is human nature. The dual character is hinted at when we find out that by day the driver works as a stunt driver in movies, where he dons on a mask to protect his face (or his identity?), the same mask he wears during one of his later murders. Now we get a closer look into the driver’s troubled soul. He tells his clients he doesn’t carry a gun and that implants a seed of respect in our minds; we know he sheds no blood, he’s humane. After the several murders he commits throughout the second half of the film – using his hands, a bat, a hammer, and other basic tools – Refn grabs that seed and burns it in front of us, in sweat and blood.

 

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence – Simple Stories, Sublime Scenes

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A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014)

Director: Roy Andersson

3/5

Roy Andersson’s final part to his Living trilogy is a gentle bedtime story about the most primitive intricacies of the human experience. Stylistically consistent with its predecessors, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is composed of simple, at times minimalistic, portraits of the moments in which we’re most beautifully and sadly human. The film begins by several title cards including “Three Meetings with Death” which is followed by three different death scenarios. The “meetings” range from spontaneous (a man falls dead while uncorking a wine bottle for dinner) to comically grave (a dying hospitalized mother tightly clasps to her jewelry-filled handbag as her three kids try to yank it away from her). Later the film mainly follows two salesmen, attempting to sell vampire teeth, silly masks, and other gags, and their travels among indebted and uninterested customers.

Interspersed amid the salesmen’s adventures are small side stories, limited to a shot or two, about distinct human qualities. The side stories personally intrigued me more than the main plot line. Bare of dialogue, if not sound altogether, the side stories paint lovers sharing a cigarette by a window, a dance class led by a lustful older woman yearning for a younger student, a cleaner on her knees talking on the phone quietly. We no longer wonder who these people are or why Andersson is telling, or more accurately showing, their stories; we simply absorb the subtle images and enjoy the bliss, longing, or loneliness reflected off the screen and deep into us. Nevertheless, when characters voice their thoughts, the dialogue they share can be just as effective as silence. The characters usually get into juvenile debates, even if lightheartedly, about important issues such as emotional maturity and manipulating people as well as more commonplace discussions like the importance of keeping track of time.

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Key motifs throughout the film include money, status, and sadism. In one scene, black prisoners are forced into a huge cylindrical container which then rotates over a lit fire. An eerie image, not-so-subtly reminiscent of Nazi “ovens” especially that as the container is rotating with smoke rising in the background, a curtain unveils a group of aristocrats, on the opposite side, in formal dress being served wine as they watch the smoke dance around the container. The notion of atrocity as entertainment reinforced by apathetic spectatorship is demonstrated silently with no expressed anguish or panic. A scene that tells so much about today’s heartless society in two shots and zero words.

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Andersson’s shots can be easily identified by their simplistic composition, pale color scheme, and static camera. At first alienating at high doses, this style has a rather numbing effect on the audience however after getting acquainted with it, other prominent and elegant features come into focus. Andersson is a master of deep staging and his trilogy is an epitome of utilizing the frame to its maximum capacity. Deep focus is almost always used in every single shot but that’s not the only technique employed to create the signature depth which characterizes Andersson’s style. His shot design typically includes hallways, windows, doorways, and reflections with movement in the background all of which are elements that provide a beautiful visual depth to the shot. In addition, Andersson’s camera is never positioned centrally, his shots are asymmetrical; instead he places the camera slightly to the left or to the right so that room corners are at the center of the frame – another inventive technique to embed his shots with an almost tangible dimensionality.

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Roy Andersson’s film may not be everyone’s cup of tea since it’s no blockbuster or innovative indie but perhaps it’s precisely because of its unique natural portrayal of reality that it’s not mainstream, afterall not all of us find real life appealing or enchanting but we’re thankful someone, an artist, Roy Andersson does.

How To Become An Adult

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Once upon a time there was a tree.
It was called Martha and it lived alone on the top of a red hill.
One day, Human #825 and Human #962 walked by it and admired its beauty.
They sat down at its roots and sang The Alarm Has Gone song.
Martha danced along their song.
Looking up, Human #825 noticed a strange purple flower on one of its branches.
Human #825 pointed to it and asked Human #962 if he ever saw one like it before.
Human #962 said he never did.
Martha felt special and waved her branch to greet her new friends.
Human #825 and Human #962 sat all day watching the purple flower until the sun set and Human #082 called from afar.

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Human #082 said it was time for the night shift.
Human #825 and Human #962 were sad and wanted to stay by the tree some more. They sat still and ignored Human #082.
Without knowing, Human #825 and Human #962 fell asleep by Martha and forgot about work.
Next day, Human #825 and Human #962 woke up and were shocked.
The purple flower was gone!
Human #962 looked around and found a pale flower by their feet.
Human #825 and Human #962 cried and cried as they stared at the dying purple flower.
By sunset, they went back to work.

Oldboy – The Ultimate Epic

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Oldboy (2003)

Director: Park Chan-wook

4/5

Low angle camera, a hidden dark face, and rushing music: this is how Park Chan-wook chooses to open his masterpiece Oldboy and this is how he chooses to kill us. The film follows Oh Dae-su (Min-sik Choi), a man imprisoned for fifteen years without knowing why. The audience witnesses his release and journey of vengeance in a two-hour adrenaline-infused epic of suspense and violence. The film is a vision of brilliant cinematography and editing. There is no single camera technique which highlights the filmmaker’s talent instead he masterfully utilizes a wide range of shots, movement, and angles and that is exactly how he shows us his talent: he can do everything. Most prominent is the fluid camera movement that feels like a free wandering eye sometimes racing from one place to another thus conveying a dramatic effect and at others gliding between bodies and faces thereby demonstrating the interconnectivity of characters. Not only camera movement but close-ups, focus, crane shots, and long takes are all key stylistic elements employed to their full potential throughout the film.

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However, the film wouldn’t be the same without its magnificent editing style. The cut is skillfully used not merely as a tool but as language, speaking to the audience and revealing only what should be revealed; the necessary and the beautiful. Furthermore, the editing techniques used – including jump cuts and match cuts – weave together events from the past and the present, from different places and points of view; it is done seamlessly and the audience is immersed in every moment. Unlike the standard action movie, Oldboy does not use a thrilling score with a fast tempo; on the contrary, most of its musical score is classical, fitting perfectly in the atmosphere of the film’s suspense.

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The film’s shocking reveal is beyond anything we can expect or imagine that it leaves us as devastated as Oh Dae-su, if not more so since we can do nothing but watch from afar as he and his captor battle till the very end. The film succeeds because of its technical excellence but also because it addresses universal themes and clicks into our innermost fears of humiliation, shame, and loss of love. With elegantly terrifying images that capture and transmit fear, the film kills us over and over again with every close-up, scream, and camera jerk.

Thank you for listening to a terrible story till the end,” writes Oh Dae-su and to Park Chan-wook we reply, “Our pleasure.”

The Assassin – An Aesthetic Experience of Atmosphere

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The Assassin (2015)

Director: Hou Hsiao-Hsien

4/5

Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin is an exhibition of visual splendor. With a simple premise and few turning points, the film conveys atmosphere more than it does plot. Its carefully composed shots and crisply edited sound makes it a striking film experience. The story takes place in seventh century China and tells of a skillful female assassin who returns to her home village with a mission to kill her cousin: the village’s leader and the man to whom she was betrothed many years ago. Typical of Chinese martial arts movies, the action sequences are elaborately choreographed and shot in slow motion. However, Hsiao-Hsien distinguishes his work by setting such action in the midst of immense natural scenery which overshadows the fights and shifts our gaze to the beauty of nature. One of the most memorable of such sequences is the stand-off fight between the assassin and her sister in a sea of white trees. In addition, the action sequences are brief and end abruptly whether within the frame as characters stop fighting and walk away or intentionally by a cut to the next scene. For example, one of the assassin’s earliest missions is rapidly edited and takes only a few seconds on-screen, on the other hand, another scene where a servant prepares a bath for the assassin is shot in real time and is over a minute long. Such manner of directing action downgrades the importance of physical battles by drowning them in natural settings or reducing their on-screen duration. Hsiao-Hsien seems to be completely enamored with nature that not only is most of his film set within its embrace but he also includes several shots of mountains, fields of wheat, and waterfalls as serene interludes, one of which is a tracking shot of flying birds in the sky.

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The film’s key stylistic element is the slow moving camera. Hsiao-Hsien shoots his scenes at a leisurely pace as the camera gradually moves from one side of a room to another, from one face to another, at times even replacing editing where a cut would be appropriate. This deliberate movement evokes a feeling; the audience feels that the camera is no longer grounded at set points but rather floating between and around the characters. Another curious technique used is filming from behind veils and translucent curtains. In one of the film’s longer scenes, the camera is positioned behind a curtain and watches as a couple converses together. The dialogue is long and almost tedious to listen to, however the unique camera position away yet aware of the couple conveys a certain feeling of distance. The couple end up sharing an emotional moment and this moment is wrapped with a dancing curtain that we can see in the foreground, one that partially veils our vision and distances us from the couple, giving them privacy at this sensitive time. Additional elements such as shot composition and sound editing make the film an immersive aesthetic experience. Besides the stately presence of nature, the saturated colors of the film give it a vibrant look. But it’s not only color which makes Hsiao-Hsien’s shots beautiful, components such as light add to the aesthetic value of the film. The shots almost always include a source of natural light, be it sunshine or candlelight. Furthermore, several scenes are beautified by the flowing movement of permeating steam or smoke. In fact, smoke becomes a character in one of the film’s dramatic scenes. The embedment of frames within frames also adds visual depth to many shots.

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As for the sound of the film, the score is usually faded in the background with the diegetic sounds of horse hooves and swords more pronounced and louder. What is most articulated is the sound of fights as the audience can clearly hear the crispy slice of swords and their motion in the air. Nonetheless, all sound falls silent at several points in the film. Silence is used as a means of emotional expression by the two main characters. The assassin’s face is covered as she cries silently and her cousin rages in a council meeting but only stands up and throws a book on the floor without uttering a sound; no sobs or yells.

All these elements of cinematography, editing, and sound bestow a distinct aesthetic feel to Hsiao-Hsien’s vision and it is in the very end of his film when the assassin fails her mission and chooses not to kill her cousin that a message surfaces and unites form with content. The assassin’s master – standing at the top of a mountain and surrounded by white mist – reproaches her apprentice, “Your skills are matchless but your mind is hostage to human sentiment.” Only then do the overwhelming presence of nature, the degradation of action to fleeting fights, and the unusual staging of emotional scenes all come together and make sense to the audience. Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin is a tale of human nature and instinct that guides us to see what runs in our blood: understanding, forgiveness, love.

Hou Hsiao-Hsien won the Best Director award for his film at Cannes Film Festival in 2015.