For the last thirty years, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, a director from Taiwan, has been creating some of the most critically acclaimed works of cinematic art in the world. Most of his films have had a contemporary setting; a few have taken place in earlier historical periods; all explore themes of unfulfilled yearning and the mysteries of relationships. With his latest film The Assassin, Hou has done something completely different, fulfilling one of his lifelong dreams—he’s made a movie in a Chinese genre known as wuxia, stories of medieval swordsmen and their warrior code, akin in some ways to the martial arts genre—a more accurate comparison might be to the American western. But, as one might have expected, Hou has taken this genre, traditionally full of rapid action and violence, and turned it into a Hou film: quiet, graceful, and rigorous in its style.
The picture opens with a prologue shot in black and white. The heroine, Nie Yinniang, played by the starkly beautiful Qi Shu, has been trained as an assassin by an older woman dressed in white. We see the young woman kill a warrior who is riding by on horseback with a rapid slash of her dagger. But she fails on her next mission when she can’t bring to kill a nobleman because he’s holding his baby son in his arms. Her teacher then scolds her for letting sentiment get in her way, and then sends her to kill the young woman’s cousin, Tian J’ian (played by Chen Chang) who is lord of the province. The reasons for this assignment, and indeed all the relationships that precede and prefigure the current story, are only revealed gradually over the course of the film, which now continues in color.
Hou and a team of screenwriters adapted the story from a well-known legend that the director had read as a child and had always wanted to do. It takes place during the 9th century Tang Dynasty, when the Empire was divided into warring factions, and the province of Weibo, where Yinniang was born, has broken off into a separate fiefdom defying the court and fortifying its garrisons for inevitable war. Into the complex intrigues of Weibo, in the court of her cousin Tian J’ian, sneaks the female assassin, silent and unstoppable, but it turns out that her motives are more personal than political.
The film recreates the special atmosphere of ancient Chinese legend in which the movement is supremely formal and deliberate. Hou’s celebrated long takes, coupled with the stunning cinematography of Mark Lee Ping Bin, make this the most visually beautiful and meditative film you are likely to see this year. When there is action, it comes in a sudden furious burst which soon ends as abruptly as it started. Throughout this story, with its style of ceremonial power, runs the themes of implacable duty—visualized by the eerie tranquility of the black-clad assassin, emissary of death—and the faint but persistent call of conscience and compassion that makes us human. The Assassin is a rarity, a film about warriors that leaves us with a feeling of peace.