The historic plot machinations of “The Assassin” are tricky to follow for westerners not steeped in wuxia culture. The simple version of the story involves a young woman (star Shu Qi) screwed out of her inheritance who is sent away to train as a warrior and years later, is sent back to her ancestral home on a distasteful mission.
There is little talking and fitful action in this $15 million period epic which took 10 years for Hou to meticulously prepare; some of the sumptuously detailed interior scenes are filtered through gauzy layers and flickering candles. The countryside is shot with astonishing clarity by Wong Kar-wai stalwart Mark Ping Bing Lee, from cliffside caves and waterfalls to creaking insects and crooning birds. You are back in an ancient time of virgin forests, flying warriors, powerful wizards and their spells. Just sit back and let it wash over you. In a theater!
Read Manohla Dargis’ New York Times interview with Hou here. Well Go USA Entertainment has U.S. rights.
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“The Assassin” [is] a mesmerizing slow burn of a martial-arts movie that boldly merges stasis and kinesis, turns momentum into abstraction, and achieves breathtaking new heights of compositional elegance: Shot for shot, it’s perhaps the most ravishingly beautiful film Hou has ever made, and certainly one of his most deeply transporting. Centered around a quietly riveting performance from Shu Qi, the film is destined for a limited audience to which gore-seekers with short attention spans need not apply.
One surprise is that Hou is not shooting in anything resembling widescreen, but a modest, nearly square format that limits the number of actors who can fit into the frame. It’s a gamble that pays off in extra vertical space, which lets him exploit soulful natural locations and create images that pleasurably recall Chinese period paintings. The second shock is that exceptional D.P. Mark Lee Ping-bing is shooting in deep black and white, which is wisely dropped for bright color beginning with the next scene.
For its sheer beauty, its mesmeric compositional sense and pure balletic poise, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s distinctive and slow-moving wuxia tale The Assassin demands attention. Although at the risk of philistinism, I now confess that for me its sometimes opaque and difficult plot means that my engagement with it can never be as absolute as it’s been for others here at Cannes, who have not hesitated to acclaim “The Assassin” as a masterpiece and a Palme contender. I’m not sure that I can go that far. The final spark of passion I was looking for was more a delicate firefly which floated entrancingly but elusively ahead.