One among the many beautiful shots in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s glacial wuxia – certainly the best-looking film in the Cannes competition - 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 strip 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 dispatched to kill a military commander who turns out to have been her first love. 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.
The Taiwanese director is certainly breaking new ground. His tone has changed from less heightened classics such as A City of Sadness and 2007's Flight of the Red Balloon. This is also unlike any other Japanese historical action thriller. Hou has said that his model was Kurosawa, but even that great storyteller might think twice before panning from a crucial fight as happens here.
It’s a very beautiful thing. It’s also a slightly frustrating thing.
The Assassin is in competition at Cannes 2014. For the latest Cannes coverage, click here