The news that Hou Hsiao-hsien, a leading figure in Taiwan's new wave, was to move into wuxia – that loosely defined class of historical martial arts movie – suggested that this often- elliptical film-maker might be in danger of embracing the mainstream. (Just think what Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon did for Ang Lee's career all those years ago.) In fact the film has triggered more furrowing of brows than most of his earlier work.
The Assassin picked up best director at Cannes and was named the best of 2015 in Sight and Sound magazine's influential poll. Since its debut, however, there has been much dispute about the density of the storytelling. Put simply, it's quite hard to figure out what's going on. There is, apparently, something in here about Taiwan's relationship with China. One suspects that only those with specialist knowledge will be able to say precisely what.
One among the many beautiful shots in Hou’s glacial film finds two characters having a conversation over a yawning ravine. The take lasts about a minute (not particularly lengthy in this context), but between its beginning and its end a mist has swept in and obscured the view.
Such is the rigorous purity of Hou’s film that we never for a moment suspect that computers have been involved. Years in the making, this is the work of an obsessive tinkerer driven by aesthetic purity.
That is both the film’s strength and its occasional weakness. The technique on display here is dazzling. Conversations are glimpsed through a virtual gauze that drifts elegantly back and forth across the screen. The shots may be long, but the editing is still striking in its juxtapositions. The balance of colours in each frame is breathtaking.
Hou’s purity of purpose does, however, also strips the plot of much lucidity and some structure. Based on the tale of Nie Yinniang from the Tang dynasty, the film follows a female assassin who, after showing mercy to a target, is punished by being dispatched to kill a cousin to whom she was once betrothed. Demands of loyalty, duty and political responsibility compete within the killer’s breast.
We assume this is the case. Nie Yinniang (played with enormous authority by Shu Qi) is off the screen for bafflingly long periods of time and makes rare explicit mention of her inner torment. Meanwhile, political switchbacks occur with surprisingly confusing rapidity for a film that grinds at such a leisurely pace.
When the action does come, it is often balletic in its grace. Watch in awe as Nie suavely dispatches a man on horseback. Hou’s editing, so often sedate, suddenly finds an unexpected martial energy.
Shot partly in black and white and partly in narrow Academy ratio, the film has much to do with the political wrangling of the era. There is a sense that we are on the cusp of a lunge into new forms of tyranny and that the insidious manipulation may be futile.
The Taiwanese director is certainly breaking new ground. His tone has changed greatly from less heightened classics such as A City of Sadness and 2007's Flight of the Red Balloon. Hou has said that his model was Kurosawa, but that great storyteller might think twice before panning from a crucial fight as happens here.
This is a breathtakingly elegant piece of work. Indeed, Mark Lee Ping Bin’s cinematography is probably the most impressive we will see this year. But there is a sense that the picture is just a little too in love with its own undeniable artistry. It’s a wonderful thing to behold. It’s also a frustrating beast to absorb.