The first film of Olivier Assayas’s I saw was ‘Irma Vep’, a dreamy fantasia on two highly different forms of cinema – the work of French director Louis Feuillade, and the iconography of Hong Kong movies – starring the strikingly beautiful Maggie Cheung. It was a film in which very little happened, but happened so hauntingly and elegantly that to be anything other than completely mesmerized wasn’t an option.
‘Boarding Gate’ – while poles apart from ‘Irma Vep’ in style and content – is immediately recognizable as the work of the same director. Olivier Assayas gets the language of cinema. Framing, mise-en-scene, use of light, depth of focus, spatial cognizance, editing, performance – every frame of ‘Boarding Gate’ bears the stamp of an artist who knows exactly what he’s doing.
Watching this as the second part of today’s double bill was revelatory. With ‘The Red Siren’, Oliver Megaton attempts juxtapositions, narrative rug-pulls and the conjuration of enigmatic characters and emerges with a wildly variable piece work that only just sidesteps being a big old mess. Assayas achieves all of the same things in ‘Boarding Gate’ and creates an effortlessly cool slice of cinematic existentialism.
Which isn’t bad considering that Assayas himself acknowledged ‘Boarding Gate’ as an exercise in “constructing a project around B-movie economics”, shot on a constrictive budget in just six weeks. If only all cheapies looked this good! The cover blurb on the Revolver Entertainment DVD seems to acknowledge the aesthetic, screaming “More daring than ‘Basic Instinct’, and with more tension than ‘Eastern Promises’, Asia Argento and Michael Madsen deliver the goods in this fast-paced, action-packed thriller.” Which is kind of true one respect and total bollocks in another.
Let’s deal with the comparisons. More daring than ‘Basic Instinct’? Well, it dares to be an intelligently-made thriller rather than a flashy, trashy POS, so score one. It’s got Asia Argento in the kind of tough/vulnerable/sexy/individualistic role she was put on this earth to play. Massive trade up from Sharon Stone’s by-the-numbers femme fatale, so score two. Then we’ve got Michael Madsen looking a tad overweight and rumpled, instead in Michael Douglas looking a tad overweight and rumpled, so we’ll call that one evens.
More tension than ‘Eastern Promises’? Since ‘Eastern Promises’ – like ‘Boarding Gate’ – is an examination of a certain milieu, a certain criminal underclass and its established traditions, rather than a suspense-driven thriller, the point is moot. ‘Eastern Promises’ gives us Viggo Mortensen in a naked smack-down in a bathhouse while ‘Boarding Gate’ gives us Asia Argento in skimpy black underwear getting all BDSM on Michael Madsen’s ass, so I guess it’s a question of you pays your money and you takes your choice.
“Fast-paced, action-packed”? Well, Assayas sure knows how to stage a chase or a shoot-out, and he pulls off a character-sinking-out-of-frame-to-reveal-antagonist shot worthy of Asia’s dad. And he turns up the heat in the second half, his heroine adrift in Hong Kong and encountering treachery at every turn. The early stages of ‘Boarding Gate’ are slow-burn to the point of almost extinguished, with a pivotal twenty-minute scene just shy of the midway point playing out as a two-hander.
I haven’t mentioned the plot. Not going to, either. Assayas sets up one character, effects a nifty rug-pull by swapping the focus to another very quickly, then concludes the aforementioned twenty-minute scene with a narrative development that sends the film spinning off like a pinball, slamming its way through the crowded streets and neon-bathed clubs of Hong Kong. Some of it is pure pulp, yet Assayas’s subversive intelligence is always present. Argento and Madsen put in great work, and there are stellar supporting turns from Kelly Lin and Carl Ng. The whole thing looks amazing, and there’s an inspired final shot that showcases the most artful use of blurring I’ve ever seen. It captures an uncontrived moment of redemption, and allows Assayas’s heroine to drift upwards, out of the frame and out of the film, as if she were an angel.