Two films in competition at Cannes focus on women at risk and also defying generic conventions. The first of these, Sicario, opens with a scene that looks at first to set up a standard movie version of an FBI raid: an armored car destroys the side of a house and a sudden explosion leaves two agents dead. The agent in charge, Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), is lucky to be alive, surviving a rifle shot aimed at her head. The hole in the wall beside her head reveals dozens of dead bodies hidden within another room, and she gets credit for the discovery.
This scene sets up the conundrum Macer poses for the rest of the film. Overworked, intelligent, and intense, she’s charismatic and familiar even as she resists generic demands that she take charge. In this, she embodies Sicario‘s challenge to expectations. Spectacular action scenes and solemn investigations lead us to expect a conventional interagency procedural. Macer is invited to join an inter-agency task force that targets Mexican drug cartels. She soon realizes that she is only there to sign off on the orders of her boss, Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), a self-described State Department representative who wears flip-flops and shorts, and is probably working for the CIA. His mysterious adviser, Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a former prosecutor in Mexico, is the film’s titular character, the sicario.
The two men organize risky operations on both sides of the Mexican border, and use torture (suggested, but not shown) when interrogating suspects. Their pursuit of subjects is rendered in plot turns and imagery so satisfying that we might look forward to director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins’ upcoming collaboration on the Blade Runner sequel. For one example, when the task force gets into a firefight with several gang members in the midst of a traffic jam, the agents eliminate all attackers swiftly and efficiently, their action vivid and color-saturated.
As the men plot and execute, Macer remains an observer, out of place in the action, unwilling to fight the “drug war” by any means possible. During the firefight scene, she stays in the car, seeing the shootout as illegal. Her resistance inevitably has costs, in particular, costs that run counter to action movies’ usual celebrations of screen violence. Macer’s rebelliousness is of a piece with Villeneuve’s other movies focused on strong women in no-win situations, including Politechnique, about a massacre of engineering female students in Montreal, and Incendies, about a woman soldier captured and tortured during a civil war in an unnamed Middle Eastern country. As much as we might want her take over, Macer doesn’t, because she never buys into the men’s mission.
Assassins (dir. Hou Hsiao-Hsien)
Nie Yin niang (Shu Qi), the female protagonist in Nie yin niang (The Assassin), also resists the orders of her masters. As Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s film begins in ninth-century China, a nun abducts the ten-year-old girl from her father, a general in a separatist province, to be educated as an assassin for the Court. After many years of training in martial arts and philosophy, the girl is dispatched to kill her cousin, once her fiancée and now the leader of the rebel army.
Film: Nie yin niang (The Assassin)
Director: Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Cast: Shu Qi, Chang Chen, Zhou Yun, Tsumabuki Satoshi, Juan Ching-Tian, Hsieh Hsin-Ying, Sheu Fang-Yi
Studio: Well Go USA
Nie Yin niang’s journey strings together graceful sword-fighting sequences, filmed as panoramas, in long takes. The film is shot in a traditional 3:4 ratio, and begins with a long black-and-white prologue before switching to color, reminding the viewer of earlier examples in the Asian swashbuckling movies, such as Akira Kurosawa‘s samurai films. The silent heroine, always dressed in black, appears from nowhere and slays her opponents in seconds, much like Toshiro Mifune did in Yojimbo.
These action scenes are buttressed by authentic period details and the natural beauty of the surroundings in Northeast China, but the narrative, based on chuanqi, short stories written during the Tang Dynasty, is less persuasive. In carefully reconstructed scenes of aristocratic life in Tang Dynasty China, Nie Yin niang and her supporting cast never engage in mundane conversations. Instead, they exchange reports of court intrigue and military movements, and many of the scenes are not clearly connected to others: Nie Yin niang walks peacefully in the woods one moment, then spars with her mentor the next, in an entirely different location.
But if you reconcile yourself to not fully understanding the plot, the film is a pleasure to watch. It is contemplative, in a way Scott McCloud describes silent panels in Japanese manga, where story gives way to mood.