Lust, Lies and Calculated Plans to Kill Your Wife: 6 Underrated Scenes of Tension in Cinema
Updated: May 20
Tension is a staple of cinema. Tension in some form exists in every masterpiece, in every one of your favourite movies. Tension helps to build stories and to build characters. Tension is every time you shuffled to the edge of your seat, it’s every time you held your breath, it’s every time you thought things were quiet… too quiet. It’s the shadowy figure in Psycho, it’s the nun in… The Nun, it’s “Take my hand if you want to live!” It’s “I’ll be back.”
Tension and suspense is most of the time associated with the horror genre. Scenes like the shower in the aforementioned Psycho, taking advantage of a blind woman in Wait Until Dark and a tape recording in Saw.
But as mentioned, tension exists across all genres, so let us take a look at some scenes that are often overlooked:
The samurai, Onibaba (1964)
Kaneto Shindo’s folktale-based Onibaba takes place during a civil war in the fourteenth century and follows a mother and daughter-in-law (Nobuko Otowa and Jitsuko Yoshimura) whose son and husband respectively has gone off to fight, leaving them to fend for themselves.
Onibaba is a survival story, but at its core, it is a story of morality. We follow this mother and daughter-in-law as they murder soldiers and samurai to steal and sell their goods in order to obtain food, while also fighting their natural human desires—sinful as they may be.
The dangers of isolation are already very prominent with the constant atmospheric rustling of the tall grass and all the sounds of nature along with the additional, frequent absence of a soundtrack. We meet only five characters in limited locations.
As the daughter-in-law has run off to fulfill her natural human desires, her mother-in-law is left alone. As she begins to make her way to confront her daughter-in-law, she is halted in her tracks by a katana coming through her hut door. The oni mask-wearing samurai demands to be shown the way back to Kyoto after being separated from his men in battle. A simple enough request but by the very thing that the women spend their lives fighting against. She argues that he will kill her after she gives him what he wants, but eventually complies.
The scene in which the mother-in-law leads the samurai through the fields of long grass is not just filled with grass. It's filled with an ominous sense of dread for the worst, but also remembering the women's ability to fend for themselves. The walk is long and filled with ominous conversation, until the talking stops.
The poison, Curse of the Golden Flower (2006)
A title really, really not short of tension, Curse of the Golden Flower directed by Zhang Yimou, the man behind House of Flying Daggers and Hero, is like an epic Chinese Shakespeare play (possibly based on King Lear, although this is not confirmed). It is visually stunning and the most expensive Chinese film to date at the time of its release. It is a melodrama about family feuds, greed, power, corruption and betrayal—all that good stuff!
Taking place in 928 A.D., it tells the story of China's emperor (Chow Yun-Fat, Pirates of the Caribbean), who is slowly poisoning his wife in secret (Gong Li, Memoirs of a Geisha). Meanwhile, the empress is having an affair with Prince Wan (Ye Liu), her husband's son from a previous marriage, but the prince secretly wishes to run away with Chan (Li Man), the daughter of the imperial doctor. All calculating and deceptive in their own ways, there doesn't seem to be any 'good guys' in this story.
The scene in question here is the performance powerhouse that is Gong Li attempting to carry out the simple task of applying her royal hair and makeup. But with the poison slowly setting in as her highness is becoming more and more senile, this simple task proves to no longer be so simple.
Gong Li is undoubtedly one of the finest actors working today and it is showcased sparkling in gold and jewels as she sweats, pants and has outbursts of anger as her mind deteriorates, and she doesn’t know why. As the viewer shifts to the edge of their seat waiting, wondering if the time will come where the macabre medicine finally takes its fateful toll.
A test of precision, The Grandmaster (2013)
When one thinks of Ip Man, most people's minds go straight to the thrilling movies starring Donnie Yen. However, more people's minds should go towards The Grandmaster.
Wong Kar-wai's (In the Mood for Love) The Grandmaster may share the same setting and characters as the Ip Man series, but beyond that, they are nothing alike. Ip Man is much more a conventional martial arts movie with fast paced fight sequences and whilst The Grandmaster also boasts stunning fight sequences, it is slower-paced and more dramatic, bringing to the forefront the underlying philosophies of Kung fu.
Among those philosophies is "Kung fu is about precision" which brings us to the scene in which Ip Man (Tony Leung, In the Mood for Love) is challenged by Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi, Hero), daughter of Gong Yutian, a retiring Wudang Boxing martial arts grandmaster from northern China. After her father is defeated by Ip, Gong Er challenges him in order to regain her family's honour.
The scene that follows is a battle not of physical dominance, as their goal is not to inflict damage on each other, but a battle of precision, wits and discipline. The rule is that whoever breaks a piece of furniture is declared the loser. It’s striking (pun intended), it’s elegant, it’s passionate, poetic and, what Zhang Ziyi described as “love at first fight,” it’s romantic. Every motion and every moment has meaning from a strike to a smirk. We watch as two masters of their craft become perfect dance partners showing pure admiration for their art and each other’s skills and neither of them willing to slip up. It is where Ip proved himself to be the legend he has become.
The bath, The Handmaiden (2016)
Of course tension is not relegated to violence and frights. If anybody ever asks what 'sexual tension' is, direct them to this scene.
Director Park Chan-wook has quite the reputation for controversial stories and surreal visuals through his extensive library of ambitious features that include Oldboy and Stoker.
The Handmaiden, his erotically-charged psychological thriller, is South Korea's biggest-selling film of all time. It is set in Japan-occupied Korea during the 1930s and adapted from the British novel The Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, altering to appropriate the setting. The result of which is this beautiful blend of Gothic-British and classical Japanese architecture and design.
In short, the story is of a con artist posing as 'Count Fujiwara,' who, with the help of a pickpocket posing as a handmaiden, plans to seduce and marry a Japanese heiress in order to bilk her out of her inheritance. Whilst the plan is for the Count to seduce the heiress, the role of a live-in maid proves to be one of closeness and comfort, as the focus shifts to the blossoming feelings between the two women.
The bath scene, in which the 'maid' Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) assists heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) in a luscious rose-petal royal bath as she prepares for the Counts' visit, is pivotal. With Lady Hideko naked in the bath and complaining about an aching tooth, Sook-hee puts a thimble over her thumb and gently places it in her mistress' mouth, beginning to file away. We follow Sook-hee's gaze as her eyes wander over Hideko and her inner thoughts complimenting the Lady's scent as their eyes meet, sweat trickling down the maid's face, and she licks her lips. The tooth is now smooth and the seed is planted.
This scene of such simplicity is yet so erotic and pregnant with sexual tension as Lady Hideko is offered a literal taste of what's to come (minus the thimble).
The embrace, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014)
Multi award-winning A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night by Ana Lily Amirpour is a Persian-language feminist throwback vampire flick about a skateboarding vamp who preys on men who disrespect women.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night has a much larger focus on atmosphere, emotion and underlying meanings than pushing along a story, which is aided by its use of high-contrast black and white throughout and its eerie lighting.
Right in the middle of the movie comes a scene where just for a moment, everything stops. The vamp spends her free time alone in her apartment listening to music. This scene is the same, except this time she's not alone. There is Arash. Arash, a young man who is caring for his heroin-addicted father. Arash who is vulnerable, naive and blissfully unaware of the vamp's true nature, unaware that he is not in control.
Considering that up to this point, all we've seen of the vamps social life has been far less than friendly, why should this moment alone with another person (who is ironically in Dracula fancy dress) in the sanctuary of her apartment be any different? Her movements slow and calm (being immortal, she really does have all the time in the world) as she carefully follows the scent of blood and the palpitation of the heartbeat, in a similar manner to Bela Lugosi slowly approaching, closing in on her prey.
Aided by Death White's "Lies," this scene is the tonal chalk to the film's cheese. Everything is said through movements and expression. You can't help but feel as if you are seeing something iconic unfold before you, and that's a feeling you don't get often.
The brush, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
This one contains a spoiler:
Ang Lee’s Academy Award winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, is the most widely recognisable foreign film ever produced. Featuring an international who’s who of Chinese stars including Chow Yun-fat (Curse of the Golden Flower, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End), Michelle Yeoh (Tomorrow Never Dies, Memoirs of a Geisha, Star Trek: Discovery), Zhang Ziyi (The Grandmaster, Rush Hour 2, Godzilla: King of the Monsters) and Chang Chen (A Bright Summer Day, The Grandmaster).
In Qing Dynasty China during the 19th century, a warrior (Chow Yun-Fat) gives his sword, named Green Destiny, to his lover (Michelle Yeoh) to deliver to safe keeping, but it is stolen, and the chase is on to find it.
Michelle Yeoh’s character Yu Shu Lien’s discovery of the identity of the thief comes from a beautifully subtle sequence as Zhang Ziyi’s Jen Yu demonstrates her calligraphy abilities, and in doing so, accidentally demonstrates her martial arts abilities.
As some Chinese calligraphy brush strokes mimic sword techniques and kung fu movements, a long close up shot of Yu’s brush and hand showcases the steady precision and control in her wrist movements and makes clear to Shu Lien that she can wield a sword. After Shu Lien comments on Yu’s meticulous skills with a brush and it’s similarities to fencing, she then draws comparison of her written name with the word for sword. Yu simply smiles, just as a red-handed child would.
Of course it is recommended that all of these scenes are viewed within the context of the movies that contain them, otherwise the impacts would be lost. Notice that the conclusions to the scenes are not talked about above, because that wouldn't be as much fun.
(Written by Alex Leptos, owner of Outside The Spotlight)
(Originally posted on Vocal Media)