Listen, I’m not going to mince words: Good luck finding out what the hell is going on in The Assassin. Renowned Chinese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s first movie in seven years, which earned him the best director award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is an epic martial-arts period piece that’s beguiling, ambiguous and—for some, at least—frustrating in its storytelling. Good thing it’s also one of the most visually breathtaking films you’ll see this year.
Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi, a ravishing Hou regular) is an assassin in 9th-century Tang Dynasty-era China. She’s ruthless and efficient, taking out corrupt government officials who never see her coming, though she can’t help but draw the line when children are in the room. After she fails to take out a leader for that very reason, her master orders her back to her homeland to kill Lord Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen), who leads the largest military region in North China. He also happens to be her cousin, whom she was supposed to marry at one point.
Once she returns, Yinniang discovers she’s just one of many forces out to get this dude—and that’s when things get complicated for her and the audience. As she becomes conflicted about her duties, gradually turning into more of a protector than a dispatcher, don’t be surprised if you end up just as on-the-alert as she is, trying to determine which entities are gunning for both her and the lord.
If you know Hou’s films, you already know that cohesive narrative isn’t his strong suit. (I had a DVD of his memorably meandering Flight of the Red Balloon. I stopped watching it halfway through because, shit, life is too short!) Luckily, The Assassin is so impeccably made that you might give up on the plot and just take in the splendor of it all.
But Hou is not an action filmmaker, so don’t expect the fight scenes to crackle with gory flashiness. He’s more interested in the mood and atmosphere of a situation, the awkward silences and unspoken words between people. He captures them in this tale, where repression and oppression run wild, and people are at risk of getting exterminated if they actually say how they feel. With longtime cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin holding down the camera and Wen-Ying Huang handling the colorful production and costume designs, The Assassin is an epic, emotional story that speaks volumes beyond its elusive plot. Leave it to Hou to make a majestic, gorgeous wuxia costume drama that feels subdued and intimate.