The Assassin, a gorgeous new work by Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien, is a martial arts film influenced by Hong Kong wu xia films and short novels based on early Chinese legend. The movie, which won Best Director at this year's Cannes Film Festival, has a few short, sharp fight sequences involving knives with a vicious curve to them. But it won't surprise anyone familiar with Hou's oeuvre that he invites us to slow down, to watch and listen to what goes on, and doesn't, in between. Or that the titular killer is a woman, though the nastiest of her adversaries can expect no mercy on that account.
Played with serene self-possession by Hou regular Shu Qi — whose full lips, hard stare and lithe stride carry echoes of Angelina Jolie — Nie Yinniang was abducted as a child from the unruly Chinese province of Weibo and trained to kill by a nun (Sheu Fang-Yi) who doubles as a warrior princess and quite possibly an agent of the Empire. We see early on that Yinniang excels at her job, but once she's under orders to return to Weibo and take out its governor Tian Ji'an (Chang), it soon becomes apparent that she's not fully committed to its rough justice, not least because the two were once betrothed.
Set in the ninth century, The Assassin is a legend, complete with curses and a bird allegory that unlocks the source of Yinniang's inner tumult. Yet the tale is told in realist language, with fervent attention to period rituals of eating, drinking, and bathing, and is opulently costumed in red and deep rose with touches of mint green. Of the women, only Yinniang appears in business attire, all in black with soft trousers that allow her to whirl around and stalk her hapless prey on rooftops, in forests of silver birch, in ornately upholstered palaces. The other women glide around like dolls, speaking their lines with ceremonial formality. Yinniang gets to move, and that is the source of her power, and her palpable unease.
If you haven't seen any of Hou's films (I recommend starting with his brilliant 1989 political drama A City of Sadness), the progression from one seemingly unedited scene to the next can seem slow, even static. Between the lines of the interior long shots that Hou favors (except, perhaps, in the impish Flight of the Red Balloon, his only film shot in the West, with Juliette Binoche in the lead), a complicated political economy of long-repressed feeling is at work that deepens without fanfare into repressed political conflict. Will Yinniang follow orders and carry out the harsh retributive justice embedded in her job description, or obey the ties of love, blood and family that draw her back home?
There's a way to read her choice as a rebuke to all the woman warriors currently rampaging through Hollywood's movie franchises, as if feminism were a matter of doing what the boys do, only more so. The most tacit and elliptical of filmmakers, Hou would never say so. The nearest thing to exposition in The Assassin comes in a black-and-white prologue that shows who and what shaped Yinniang into a toxic avenger. Like many of his films, The Assassin may be said to pursue an underground obsession with Taiwan's tortured relationship to the mainland that, on and off, has dominated it for centuries. You don't need any of this to fall in love and abandon yourself to the movie's exquisite landscapes, at once serene and melodramatic, revel in Hou's stealthy cutaways to quivering blossoms, or listen to the birdsong and the wind ruffling trees that counterpoint the bloodshed. With and without allegory, to watch The Assassin is to be carried along in the river of life, in all its ecstasy and terror.