LFF 2015: Shu Qi excels in this elegant martial arts film from Hou Hsiao-hsien
Majestic and fitfully punchy, The Assassin takes place during the decline of China's Tang dynasty. This captivating effort from Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien (Flight of the Red Balloon, A Time to Live, a Time to Die) is taciturn and painstakingly put together, told in regretful looks and the briefest of exchanges. It secured Hou the Best Director prize at Cannes 2015 and marks his first foray into martial arts territory.
Reuniting him with the excellent Shu Qi – star of Three Times and Millennium Mambo – Hou's 19th feature is based on a story by pioneer of Chinese short fiction Pei Xing and follows Yinniang (Shu), a striking young woman raised as an assassin by a nun (Sheu Fang-yi). Her ruthless mistress tells her, 'Your skills are matchless, but your mind is hostage to human sentiment.'
When she fails to carry out an assassination due to a pang of pity for the intended victim's child, Yinniang is presented with an even greater challenge. She is sent home to Weibo, a province which maintains a fragile alliance with the Imperial Court. There, she's to murder her cousin, Lord Tian Ji'an (Chang Chen), the governor. However, political machinations and jealousy mean that she's not the only one looking to stab someone in the back.
Hou's unhurried style rather suits Yinniang's soft-footed stealth and radiant sorrow, and the film lifts off during confident fight scenes that make for an exhilarating contrast and that are certainly impactful and dynamic, if too few and fleeting. During the many more moments of elegant stillness, Hou builds suspense and intrigue with views through gently billowing veils and clustered trees, as our protagonist lurks in the shadows – springing into action with formidable, almost supernatural speed and skill (she also gives Christian Bale's Batman a run for his money in terms of her stylish disappearing act). Martial arts fans will yearn for more action but this is a film that exercises restraint and prizes compassion, meaning those of a forbearing nature will see their patience pay off.
Screening on Sun 11, Tue 13 and Fri 16 Oct as part of the London Film Festival 2015. General release TBC.