Film

Cannes 2015: Women Resist Their Masters in 'Sicario' and 'The Assassin'

Sicario (dir. Denis Villenueve)

Both Sicario and The Assassin tell the stories of women embroiled in conflict: in the former, the drug war; in the latter, the courts of ninth-century China.


Sicario

Director: Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Victor Garber, Jon Bernthal, Daniel Kaluuya
Rated: NR
Studio: Lionsgate
Year: 2014
Website

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

Year: 2015

Rated: NR

Website: http://www.festival-cannes.fr/en/archives/ficheFilm/id/f5f10bd4-2147-406e-82ab-48bf0371765c/year/2015.html

Trailer: http://www.festival-cannes.fr/en/mediaPlayer/14974.html

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/a/assassin_filmreview_poster350.jpg

Rating: 8

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.

7

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7

This film suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less
10
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

Here comes another Kompakt Pop Ambient collection to make life just a little more bearable.

Another (extremely rough) year has come and gone, which means that the German electronic music label Kompakt gets to roll out their annual Total and Pop Ambient compilations for us all.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Winner of the 2017 Ameripolitan Music Award for Best Rockabilly Female stakes her claim with her band on accomplished new set.

Lara Hope & The Ark-Tones

Love You To Life

Label: Self-released
Release Date: 2017-08-11
Amazon
iTunes

Lara Hope and her band of roots rockin' country and rockabilly rabble rousers in the Ark-Tones have been the not so best kept secret of the Hudson Valley, New York music scene for awhile now.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image