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Two distinct worlds in Chinese-language cinema meet in Cannes

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Both are leading film makers in Chinese. Both are vying for the Golden Palm at the 68th Festival. In their work however, they are very different. Zhang’s Shan He Gu Ren (Mountains May Depart) spans the last twenty and next ten years, while Hou’s  Nie Yin-niang (The Assassin) is a 9th Century period piece. 


Scheduled to screen within 24 hours of each other, it’s hard not to compare and contrast the entries from Mainland – PRC Chinese Zhang Jia-ke and Taiwanese Hou Hsiao-hsien. Although they are very different .

Zhang’s film was up first. A three-part journey starting in the 1980s and ending in 2025 touches upon a range of social and even existential issues through the lives of a woman (played by Zhao Tao), her suitor (Liang Jingdong), her husband (Zhang Yi), and a son (Dong Zijiang) whose father insists on calling him a Chinese version of ‘dollar’, Dao-le.

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The first part is engaging and promising, the second is less so, and the third set largely in Australia where Taiwan actress Sylvia Chang plays a woman of about 60 encouraged into a relationship with the young Dao-le.

One of the big questions is about Chinese identity, but the man behind a Touch of Sin (Best Screenplay at Cannes in 2013), also returns to the sad state of Chinese mining , migrant workers and the wealth gap as he did in The World (2004) and in Still Life (2006). The screenplay is not a patch on Touch of Sin though.

Zhang’s Mountains enjoys backing from leading French (MK2) and Japanese (Kitano) production houses.

He’s something of a man of the moment in Cannes after having received from the Director’s Fortnight parallel festival, their Golden Carriage for lifetime achievement.
Also greatly appreciated in France, filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Palm contender, The Assassin (Nie Yin-niang), seems to be a digression from previous works with its period (9th century setting) and martial arts scenes. At the end of the day, The Assassin while sometimes reminiscient of Japanese director Akihiro Kurosawa’s work, is less grand: his attention to detail (how to adjust a hair accessory) as present as ever.

Midi Z is a Burmese filmmaker who has close ties to Taiwan and is at Cannes on a quest for funding his project The Road to Mandalay. He defends Hou’s decision to try out the martial art genre.

“It’s not a commercial film. It’s Hou’s usual style. Close to realism. But every Chinese filmmaker, and even myself, we want to make at least one martial arts movie, because we all grow up reading this kind of novel. “

It’s like Quentin Tarantino making a World War Two film (Inglorious Basterds), or a Western (Django). The genre is clearly there, however these movie-makers, make the genre their own.
Indeed, The Assassin, starring Shu Qi and Chang Chen is a beautiful , drawn-out picture that lasts just 1hour 45. For all it's beauty, it seemed much longer.

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