Starring Shu Qi. In Mandarin, with English subtitles. Rated PG.
If there’s a more beautiful movie released this year, I don’t even want to see it. There’s only so much the eye can take, and veteran Hou Hsiao-hsien—who won the top directing prize at Cannes this year—serves up such a visual feast in The Assassin, it would feel greedy to ask for more.
Heavily influenced by the more stylized auteurs of Europe’s new wave, the veteran director spent a quarter-century, with films like A City of Sadness, delving into convoluted memories of Taiwan. He has also worked in French, English (both, in Flight of the Red Balloon), and Japanese, and has even made a period piece, Flowers of Shanghai, set in the 1880s. Here, he travels further back, to a Tang Dynasty tale of a female assassin out to avenge betrayals and stir up, or sometimes ameliorate, conflicts between Weibo province and the imperial court.
The nearly mute, black-clad Nie Yinniang (ethereally beautiful Shu Qi, of Journey to the West and The Transporter), was kidnapped by a mysterious nun (Fang-yi Sheu) before she could wed her cousin, handsome lord Tian (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s Chang Chen). For political reasons, Tian married a princess from another clan, but loves his concubine more deeply. The two women look similar and, indeed, most characters have doppelgängers of some sort. Furthermore, some stories are repeated from different angles, heightening a confusing sense of psychological fragmentation that rubs up against the tale’s ornate formalism.
The spectacularly costumed characters speak in classical cadences, suggesting the pitchy declamations of Chinese Opera, and they pose in gorgeous tableaux. Hou, who shot this on 35mm film, draws on the language of silent-era cinema, Kurosawa’s samurai epics, and Jim Jarmusch postmodernism, and blends in world music and disturbing sound effects. Rhythm, coloration, and even screen formats are constantly shifting, and the slo-mo images are unpredictably punctuated by bursts of noisy violence. The settings alternate between sublimely lit interiors and misty landscapes that give the characters majesty while dwarfing their significance. This does not make for an easy watch, but it is an unforgettable one.