The first time I saw an Olivier Assayas film was during an invitation from my cousin who took me to a retrospective at the Alliance Francais in London. Before then, I've only heard of Assayas from other cineastes who always accorded him with a demigod status. So I sat in the small but comfortable AV room with irresolute interest. But as the film flickered into this raw delivery of stories, I was simply transfixed on my seat. In the film, a Parisian production outfit has hired iconic Hong Kong Superstar Maggie Cheung to star in a superheroine role (think "Kick-Ass" circa 1990s). Its black and white images, and the unequivocal sullenness and indecision of Cheung the star and Cheung the character make for a twisty, chilly peculiar quasi-documentary night in the British capital.
The film was "Irma Vep".
Fast forward to 2011. I've had Assayas' "Boarding Gate" gathering dust on my shelf for a year. I wanted to assign a particular moment for what would be a perfect viewing, but time somehow moved along faster than President Noynoy Aquino's predilection to turn in decisions. Last night, I finally renewed my interest while browsing around. And off I went.
"Boarding Gate" is a challenging film. Its anti-melodrama stance is typical of several French films, told in unembellished, raw narrative. Its matter-of-fact staging gives this sensation of having front seats in an intimate chamber play; it's somehow easy to drift away to other matters. But Assayas always imposes attention. Because at the far end of his visual journey lies a pot of gold, the way rainbows are supposed to have.
At the heart of the story is Sandra (Asia Argento), an underworld moll who visits schemy entrepreneur Miles (Michael Madsen). They once shared a raunchy relationship that went sour. After declaring that she's moved on, Miles invites her to his pad, a move that usually ends in crazy kinky fornication involving belts and ropes. Sandra arrives, supposedly to turn in the keys to his pad. But she has ulterior motive. She is tasked to kill Miles for Lester (Carl Ng). The latter operates a drug import business. Sandra is in love with Carl - an Asian hottie; they share intimate rendezvous together, despite Lester being married. But Sandra moonlights for Carl as well (she's a priced hooker) which underscores their tempestuous affair. What follows is an expedient turn of event that takes Sandra to the underbelly of Hong Kong's drug trade.
Once again, Assayas communes with a femme fatale, admixed with his love affair with Asia - and we don't mean his actress Argento (he married Maggie Cheung - they've divorced 3 years later). In a scene where Sandra finally realizes the gravity of deceit she's been thrown in involving her lover Lester, we see her gripping a knife as she prepares to stab Lester who has his back turned against her. But all of her resolve dissipates. She freezes. We wait with bated breath. But she couldn't kill him. Even when he practically served her head on a silver platter. What's a girl to do?
Assayas' dedication to films translates to his partiality to his celluloid subject. He falls in love with them. He married Cheung who gave a sterling performance in the Cannes-winning film "Clean" (and one of my favorites). He also married Mia Hansen-Love ("Late August, Early September"; she was 17 when they shot the film). Though not Olivier Assayas' best work, "Boarding Gate" is nevertheless a cinematic gem that should be seen.
French film master Olivier Assayas. I wish he turns his gaze on some of our Filipino actors for a project. That would make me blush.