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?
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.