Hip to be Square: The Return of 4:3 in 2-D

in 68th Cannes Film Festival

by Clarence Tsui

Boasting more than 2300 seats and a screen measuring 19 metres by eight, the Grand Theatre Lumière at Cannes Palais des Festivals has long been considered one of the high temples of cinema where, for two weeks in May every year, cinephiles – well, at least those fortunate enough to secure press badges or “invitations” – duly trudge into its hallowed space to marvel at the widescreen pleasures unspooling before them. For those craving such sensations, the Lumière did not disappoint this year: from George Miller’s apocalyptic anthem Mad Max: Fury Road to Luc Jacquet’s ecological epic Ice and the Sky (La glace et le ciel) – via Gaspar Noe’s stereoscopic sex-romp Love – audiences rocked to (and possibly recoiled from) sweeping visual bombast aplenty.

It’s perhaps ironic, however, that two of the most visually astounding films shown at the Lumière (if not at the Festival de Cannes in general) are square and flat. Only literally, that is: both shot on film and screened in old-school 2-D, Laszlo Nemes’ Son of Saul (Saul fia) and most of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin (Nie Yinniang) unfold in 4:3, an aspect ratio whose decades-long gradual fadeout from mainstream cinematic (and television) discourse was seemingly complete in the early years of our HD-obsessed 21st century. Running against the grain of contemporary cinema, both Nemes and Hou have shown how less is sometimes much, much more: and a viewer’s engagement with the image (and its context) can be enhanced not just by making things pop out of an ever-widening vista, but actually in obscuring what one can see by limiting the line of vision.

In 2012, Martin Scorsese – fresh from the acclaim of Hugo – spoke of the wonder of 3-D as the inevitable next step for filmmakers to “recreate life”: “There is something that 3-D gives to the picture that takes you into another land and you stay there and it’s a good place to be,” he said, adding he might be considering using 3-D in all his future projects. The fact that 3-D was hardly brought up as a possibility in his next film, The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), and his upcoming project Silence (in production and slated for release in 2016) speaks volumes of how even the maestro now sees the added dimension in 3-D as just one of many tools he can choose to use. And by playfully allowing a stereoscopic image to fall out of sync in Goodbye to Language (Adieu au langage, 2014), Jean-Luc Godard subverts the mythology surrounding 3-D by highlighting how there are other ways of using it.

Just as widescreen and 3-D served their functions in other instances the potential of the seemingly visually limiting 4:3 (and even narrower aspect ratios, which will be discussed later) is now being cultivated again. Of course, a few selected filmmakers have actively sought to use the Academy ratio in recent years, among the more high-profile figures being Michel Hazanavicius, Miguel Gomes and Wes Anderson. But The Artist (Cannes entry in 2011), Tabu (Fipresci prize winner in Berlin in 2012) and The Grand Budapest Hotel (Berlinale opener in 2014) revisited this format because of the filmmakers’ attempt in channelling nostalgia. While both period dramas, Son of Saul (unfolding during the Second World War) and The Assassin (set in 9th century China) are void of such sentiments. In fact, both films could be seen as exercises in modernism, with both Nemes and Hou rendering their formal strategies as part of the story-telling rather than external to it.

Nemes and Hou have their Cannes precedents. Both Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (Palme d’Or winner, 2003) and Xavier Dolan’s Mommy (Jury Prize, 2014) – screened mostly in the even more extreme 1:1 ratio – features suppressed and smothered individuals, their smouldering spirits trying to break out of their emotional confinement. Van Sant’s alienated college kids are boxed in by social norms, the harrowing bullying they endure walking down those hallways leading to even more harrowing vengeance as they unleash mayhem as they (again) walk down those very hallways; Dolan has made his motive obvious with his gasping coup de grace of having his young character literally stretching the screen open (to the sound of Oasis’ Wonderwall and followed by a widescreen sequence of lives lived freely and happily).

Similarly, the limited vision in Nemes’ Son of Saul mirrors the mental state of its titular protagonist (played by actor-poet Géza Röhrig), a Jewish man serving as a Sonderkommando in a death camp – that is, theoretically, an accomplice to his Nazi tormentors’ systematic murder of his fellow Jews. For his own sake, Saul blocks off the deadly circumstances around which he scrapes his survival: he herds people into gas chambers, waits as the screams inside subside, and then ventures inside to move the corpses to the crematoria and – in perhaps one of the most vivid examples committed to film about the evilness of the banal – scrubs the walls and the floor of the “shower room” in anticipation of the next group of victims.

So it is that the obscuring of the background is out of moral grounds: vivid depictions of the Holocaust will be sensationalist or, at worst, exploitative. Then again, Nemes’ film is, first and foremost, a character study: his single-tracked mission in giving his son’s corpse a proper, religious send-off – regardless of what’s happening around him, as the camp morphs from death factory to a nexus of insurrection – could be seen as ego-centric, a man’s private atonement of his own sins. We only see what he sees or what he acknowledges as seeing, while the horrors fall outside the frame, as Nemes – with his sound designer Tamás Zányi – forces us to only imagine something, which cannot be described.

It’s a much more extreme configuration of how the individual contend with atrocities than his critically-lauded 2007 short film which revolves around a woman who seems to be an office clerk. To the bare sound of typewriters and fluttering paper, she deals with paperwork, passes on documents to her boss, and reflects on a gift of a brooch from a colleague. But the setting is soon out, as the worker moves to the window and promptly sees a man in a striped top ushering a woman back to a clearing in the woods where, guarded by Nazi soldiers, naked people stand in line while others dig. Bar a T.S.Eliot quote in the beginning, no words intrude in this 14-minute piece filmed, just like Son of Saul eight years later, in the bracketed-in 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Its title of With A Little Patience says it all about the way viewer is expected to tackle this.

Hou, meanwhile, is hardly a filmmaker one would expect to eschew widescreen vistas for the tunnel-like vision of 1.33:1: after all, one of the Taiwanese filmmaker’s legacy lies with his long takes of landscapes. His choice of a smaller aspect ratio stems, perhaps first and foremost, as a challenge to himself: Hou has spoken about how he wanted to use only the spring-wound Bolex camera to shoot The Assassin, a move which will force him to rethink his mode of working by stripping his work (his now trademark long takes) to short shots. (According to various reports, Hou’s suggestion was vetoed by everyone else on the crew – and the director himself said how his DP, Mark Lee Ping-bing, has aged and “cannot see clearly in the Bolex viewfinder”).

But more importantly, the use of more square-like dimensions somehow suited Hou’s view of wuxia. To paraphrase a notion espoused in yet another auteur’s foray into the action-cum-period-drama territory – Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster  – verticality signifies triumph and survival in the world of kung-fu. In this sense, The Assassin is a vertical film, given how the titular life-dispatcher Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi) is an emotionally detached wanderer whose work leads her to being always the last (and only) person standing. Somehow, cinemascope would have reduced the impact of seeing Nie as a lone towering beacon of discipline and ideals, just like the mountains, which have stood there in the landscape since time immemorial. It’s perhaps hardly a coincidence that the film’s final shot is of Nie and her two new comrades leaving the “stage” of the film’s terrain of a war-ridden land into the mountains, towards what could have been a far-flung utopia freed of political intrigue (based on the desire for a horizontal spread of geopolitical power) which had shaped Nie’s upbringing and life.

There were instances illustrating how Hou’s choice of aspect ratio could be aesthetical – such as the only instances in which the film opens up to 1:85:1 so as to accommodate the complete depiction of the zither being played by Nie’s master Jiaxin (dancer-actor Sheu Fang-yi). But there’s more to the image than meets the eye. Like Son of Saul, The Assassin is also a study of an individual mired in a land of dodgy morals; Nie, for example, is instructed to cast her sentimentality aside and treat her target’s loved ones as disposable collateral damage. Again, the focus is on the personal – but of course, as the film unfolds, the personal is very much political, as Nie discovers her latest mission (to kill his cousin Tian Ji’an) is actually as much a test of her resolve as it is a move in a complicated game of regional powerplay (Tian is a general defying the central court of the Tang Dynasty in his own de facto self-ruling entity).

In a way, The Assassin is a rite of passage for the long-suppressed humanity in Nie; her liberation from all this, somehow, might call for the screen to open up. Then again, Hou is not a postmodernist as, say, the media-savvy Dolan. Or maybe the auteur’s persistence in using 1.33:1 is his own way of saying how nothing changes in the world Nie has left behind – the world we, as the viewer looking on and as a human being trapped in a universe of moral dilemmas, will never be able to leave.

Edited by Richard Mowe