There are moments during Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s “The Assassin” in which it seems reasonable to call the film one of the most breathtakingly gorgeous in cinema history. Some of these shots – two figures on a mountaintop, mist over a gray pool of water – deserve to be paused, printed and framed.
This is not hyperbole. Hou’s film earned him the best director prize at last May’s Cannes Film Festival over the likes of the already acclaimed and soon-to-be released “Son of Saul” and Todd Haynes’ “Carol.”
Did Hou deserve the honor? Hard to say, but watching “The Assassin,” it’s easy to see why the Cannes jury flipped for the latest effort from the director of 2007’s lovely“Flight of the Red Balloon.”
The director’s fellow visual master Wong Kar-wai went martial arts with 2013’s stunner “The Grandmaster,” but Hou’s first film to dabble in that genre is a much different affair. The slow-paced “Assassin” will simply not work for filmgoers anticipating unrelenting, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”-style action.
The setting is ninth century China, the era of China’s Tang Dynasty. It is a time of sudden, unpredictable violence and rigidly defined social structure. Perhaps that is why the assassin of the film’s title is such an intriguing, unpredictable figure.
This mysterious individual is named Nie Yinniang, and she is well played by Shu Qi, star of Hou’s 2001 treat “Millenium Mambo.” As a 10-year-old, this daughter of a prominent general was taken by a nun and trained to kill without mercy.
Years later, Yinniang emerges from exile on the nun’s orders, tasked with returning to the land of her birth to murder her cousin Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen), the governor of the powerful Weibo province – and the man she was once set to marry.
Intriguingly, it is widely known that Yinniang has returned, and the sight of her lurking in the shadows, while causing some discomfort, is seemingly greeted with acceptance. This makes for a complex and often hard to follow story, one filled with long pauses and furtive glances. It is no exaggeration to call the film, at times, confusing.
Quite honestly, the film’s plot feels like an excuse for the visuals – but my goodness. The visuals. Indeed, enjoying the film requires a complete immersion into the ravishing scenery and beguiling setting.
Really, Hou’s visual mastery cannot be overstated. Even if the film’s languid pacing and head-scratching plot confound, it is impossible to turn away.
Also effective is the character of Yinniang. Unlike the governors, their families and their protectors, she is free to travel in the shadows, strike quickly and disappear again. It’s refreshing to see a female – in ninth century China, no less – who is dependent on no one.
In addition, despite the difficulties of the story, there are lines of dialogue in the Hou co-authored screenplay that linger in one’s memory. “Your mind is still hostage to human sentiment” is one. But the dialogue that most startled me with its somber simplicity comes from Tian Ji’an: “When I was 10 I had a serious fever. The doctors were no help. A small coffin was prepared.”
Hou is undoubtedly a visionary. While this Taiwanese master has made a film that will surely alienate audiences, those with a deep appreciation for cinema will find the world of “The Assassin” to be intoxicating.
Starring: Shu Qi, Chang Chen, Zhou Yun, Satoshi Tsumabuki
Director: Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Running time: 105 minutes
Rating: Unrated, but PG-13 equivalent for violence and adult situations.
The Lowdown: An assassin accepts a dangerous mission to kill a political leader in ninth century China.