All it takes to change the temperature of a scene in The Assassin is a softly billowing brocade of silk. The first film in eight years from the Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-Hsien, the winner of the best director prize at Cannes last year, is an immaculate treasure box of light, texture and movement – though just when you think you’ve pinned it down, it slips your grasp as nimbly as its lead character darting through a silver birch grove.
For the first time in his estimable 35-year career, Hou has made a wuxia, or period martial-arts film: a staple of Hong Kong action cinema. If you’ve seen swordsmen and/or women bouncing through a bamboo forest, you’ve seen wuxia – yet you’ve almost certainly never seen it carried off with this degree of delicacy and refinement. There’s a little forest-bouncing here, but the fight scenes are few and far between. What combat there is looks less like choreography than calligraphy, the warriors’ bodies swirling through the shot like ink-brushes over parchment.
The plot is based on a seventh-century Chinese folk tale about a female assassin charged with restoring balance to the crumbling Tang Dynasty court. Shu Qi, Hou’s long-time muse, plays the assassin herself, Nie Yinniang, trained since the age of ten to be a silent executioner for the Imperial Court. In a brief, black-and-white prologue, she’s sent by her mentor (Sheu Fang-yi) to kill two disloyal nobleman. The next mission, with which the film switches into full colour, tests her loyalties to the limit. Yinniang is sent to Weibo, the province of her birth, to kill the governor Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen) – who was also once her intended husband before his father found a more advantageous match.
The drama mostly plays out in hushed, painterly tableaux: silk curtains flutter and fall, candles glow, fires crackle softly in the grate. Every scene, every shot, has been composed with total, Kubrickian precision, and calibrated for maximum, breath-quickening impact.
Hou uses costumes, props and colours to express the emotions his cast deliberately withhold. For a western audience these can be hard to decode, but those rosy pomegranates, snow-white peonies and paintings of pine trees in the background aren’t just there for prettiness’s sake.
But you don’t have to be schooled in traditional Chinese plant symbolism to recognise The Assassin’s extraordinary beauty. A shot of a panicked retinue sweeping through the temple outbuildings at night holding flaming torches provides a skin-prickling thrill of action though it plays out in near silence, while a landscape of a mirror-like pond at dawn, mist dancing on its surface, cranes lazily flying overhead, is stand-up-and-wolf-whistle beautiful.
Though The Assassin has its roots in action cinema, Hou wants to lower your heart rate, not raise it. The soundtrack rarely gets more complex than a low drum-beat, which could almost be the controlled heartbeat of the assassin – or perhaps of the Chinese court itself. This is a work of strange and subtle power, unlike anything else you’ll see this year, and an extraordinary comeback from a necessary filmmaker.
From a review by Robbie Collin, The Telegraph