Hou Hsiao-hsien's The Assassin is the Taiwanese director's first foray into the martial-arts genre. It may also be his most resplendent film yet: Watching it is like floating along on a sumptuous gold-and-lacquer cloud. Hou favorite Shu Qi (who also starred in Millennium Mambo and Three Times) plays Nie Yinniang, a fierce fighter in ninth-century China who was kidnapped at the age of ten and trained as an assassin by the scheming nun Jiaxin (Sheu Fang-yi). Don't you just love it already? Hou starts off with a gorgeous prologue: He sets it off, like a gray jewel, by shooting it in austere, elegant black-and-white, in the (squarish) Academy ratio.
We see Yinniang expertly dispatch an enemy on horseback — the action is as swift and graceful as the snap of a silk flag in the wind. But when she fails to fulfill one of Jiaxin's orders — she can't bring herself to kill her next mark when she sees him with his young son — Jiaxin sends her away on an even more difficult mission. At this point Hou shifts to a palette of deep, rich, vibrant colors that mirror the subtle intensity of the action: Yinniang is forced to return to her home province, Weibo, which is embroiled in a struggle with the imperial court. She has orders to kill her cousin, Tian (Chang Chen), the governor of Weibo, though their family connection is even more complicated than it first appears.
I know some people who marched out of The Assassin fully confident they understood every angle of its somewhat labyrinthine plot, and others who lost the trail very early on. I'm somewhere in the middle, but I can assure you that you don't need to be schooled in late-Tang-dynasty lore to be dazzled. Hou has always been a gifted visual stylist, favoring languorous takes that beckon you closer rather than hold you at a distance. In The Assassin — shot by master cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin — there's color everywhere: Princesses and concubines wear embroidered silk raiments in shades of pink and tangerine; rooms are dotted with bowls of peonies so bright they practically glow like lamps; gauzy patterned curtains let in just enough light, or provide subtle cover for cat-footed assassins.
The action is fleet and distinctive, quiet in a way that keeps you alert. Hou doesn't have to beg for our attention; he favors naturalistic hand-to-hand combat, as opposed to the more fanciful traditional wuxia wirework. And so even though this is a fantasy, the fighting feels disarmingly real: The characters bob and weave and dance, and you can hear and feel their feet hitting the ground. The Assassin explores the fringy divide between love and duty, and Shu carries its emotional weight deftly. Dressed all in black, she moves like a half-glimpsed shadow. Hou uses very few close-ups here, preferring to tell his story mostly through movement: combat, dance, the act of passing through a landscape of satiny green firs or silvery birch trees and just watching. Shu conveys complicated feelings — longing, regret, anxiety — with little more than the tilt of her chin or the set of her shoulders. The Assassin is the slowest martial-arts movie in the East, and that's a wonderful thing.