In the seven years since Hou Hsiao-hsien began working on a ninth-century wuxia epic, his admirers have been madly curious about how the Taiwanese auteur known for such refined historical panoramas as “Flowers of Shanghai” and minor-key urban portraits like “Cafe Lumiere” would handle his rite of passage into one of China’s most storied and vigorous popular genres. We have the answer at long last in “The Assassin,” 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. Still, with a Stateside release already secured and passionate critical response assured, it should emerge as one of Hou’s more commercially successful and internationally well-traveled efforts.
Freely reimagined from a story written by the Tang Dynasty scribe Pei Xing, titled “Nie Yinniang” after its formidable female protagonist, “The Assassin” employs the sort of rigorously off-center storytelling devices that will prove immediately recognizable to Hou’s worldwide fanbase: a dense historical narrative laid out with unobtrusive intricacy, a masterfully distanced sense of camera placement, and an attentiveness to mise-en-scene that is almost Kubrickian in its perfectionism, as if a single absent detail or period inaccuracy would cause the whole thing to collapse. At the same time, the director and his d.p. Mark Lee Ping Bing (shooting on 35mm film) have delivered a picture that looks markedly different not only from any of its myriad genre forebears, but also from any of their nine previous collaborations.
The differences are made clear in the film’s prologue — lensed in crisp, high-contrast black-and-white and framed in the Academy aspect ratio — which situates us amid the volatile power plays and political instabilities that marked the decline of the Tang Dynasty. It’s here that we first meet Nie Yinniang (Shu), who was abducted from her family at the age of 10 by a nun, Jiaxin (Sheu Fang-yi), who trained her to become an exceptionally lethal assassin tasked with killing corrupt officials. A lithe but imposing vision clad entirely in black, Yinniang gives us a taste of her prowess when she coolly executes a man on horseback — an act pulled off with swift, unerring skill in front of and behind the camera, making use of a whiplash edit that briefly disrupts Hou’s usual aesthetic of long takes and slow pans. But Yinniang’s ruthlessness fails her when she confronts another target and, moved by the presence of his young son, chooses to spare his life, spurring Jiaxin to send her protegee on a mission that will both punish her and rid her of all pity.
At this point, the monochrome bleeds into color and the location shifts to Weibo, the largest and strongest of the many mainland provinces, which maintain an increasingly uneasy balance of power with the Imperial Court. This is where Yinniang was born, and now, after an absence of untold years, she has quietly returned with orders to murder the governor of Weibo, Lord Tian Ji’an (the charismatic Chang Chen, previously paired with Shu in Hou’s “Three Times”), who also happens to be her cousin. Yinniang makes her presence known through a series of furtive ambushes, though as with her last assignment, she never quite goes in for the kill. Her hesitancy is rooted, we learn later, in the fact that she and Lord Tian were once betrothed, with the intention that their marriage would help maintain peace between Weibo and the Court.
That peace looks in danger of crumbling imminently, as Lord Tian discusses with the other men of his court — a session that will have potentially deadly consequences for his unwisely outspoken aide-de-camp, Xia Jing (Juan Ching-tian), whom the governor angrily banishes from Weibo. The fallout from that decision precipitates the most robust action sequences in “The Assassin,” providing an occasional burst of visceral punctuation in a film where most of the battles are waged verbally. Hou and his chief collaborators (including d.p. Lee and editor Huang Chih-chia) rarely shoot these sequences the same way twice, and they understand that effective action is often a matter of both revelation and concealment. In their hands, an attack can be presented as a breath-catching blur of super-quick closeups, or shown from a discreet distance behind a row of birch trees, or captured in a straightforward medium shot, the camera never blinking as Yinniang’s foes are felled by swords and arrows (every blow and thwack registering in Tu Duu-chih’s immaculate sound design).
Pointedly, the expertly choreographed armed combat is never treated as an end in itself, and while the film presents it as an object of contemplation and sometimes excitement, the violence itself never becomes a source of pleasure. This is action forged by necessity and purged of all excess and spectacle, in the process achieving a clarity of vision that is not just aesthetic but implicitly moral. For the same reason, Hou and Shu wisely resist the anachronistic impulse to turn Yinniang into some sort of kickass proto-feminist avenger (Imperator Furiosa she’s not): When this assassin kills, she goes about it with matter-of-fact precision and practiced efficiency, never lingering or wasting a breath or move.
Still, there’s no denying that Shu’s sleek, stealthily commanding, intriguingly opaque performance — her third lead turn for Hou, after “Millennium Mambo” and “Three Times” — possesses a mythic allure that occasionally lends the film the dramatic coloration of a fantasy or folk tale. One way to think of “The Assassin” is as a very early version of “Sleeping Beauty,” in which Shu is playing the abducted princess and the evil fairy simultaneously — an association suggested by the heart-stopping image of her looming in wait behind a curtain, uncertain if she is going to prove murderous or merciful. We’re made to understand that Yinniang’s indecision, far from branding her as weak, is ultimately a mark of power: In a world where individual lives can be so cruelly limited by social circumstances and the unpredictable fluctuations of history (a thematic constant in so many of Hou’s period films), Yinniang emerges as the rare figure in command of her own destiny.
There are moments when the film’s relatively straightforward plotting can nonetheless seem a confusing tangle, simply because the court intrigue is allowed to unfold as it plausibly would in real life, with occasional digressions and repetitions — one key detail involving Lord Tian’s concubine (Hsieh Hsin-ying) is recounted at least three times — that reveal the complex channels of communication at work. As ever, Hou (who wrote the script with three other scribes) prizes verisimilitude over expedience. Dialogue plays the crucial role of not only advancing the drama but fleshing out context: Eschewing flashbacks and other narrative shortcuts, Hou understands the most piercing way for us to feel the past bearing down on the present is to have a character simply tell their story, as when Lord Tian sadly explains the significance of the two matching jade pieces that he and Yinniang were given as children.
The physical reconstruction of ninth-century Weibo is nothing short of astonishing, opening up a painterly world of brilliant green forests, silvery mist-wreathed lakes and the occasional gorgeous sunset (the exteriors were lensed in Inner Mongolia and China’s Hubei province). The Taiwan-set interiors are no less vivid, thanks to Hwarng Wern-ying’s exquisitely bejeweled costumes and obsessively detailed production design, all flickering candlelight and gorgeous brocades. Lee’s camera finds a marvelously subtle balance of colors and textures in every shot, and his eye for composition is as superb as ever; building a world frame by frame, he captures the interaction of Hou’s characters within the space and with each other. Particularly evocative is the way he films a private exchange between Lord Tian and his concubine through a gently billowing curtain, conjuring a mood of intimate languor while also lending the proceedings a clandestine, conspiratorial air. Lim Giong’s score, making use of menacing drumbeats and delicate zither strumming, is deployed with particular subtlety.
The sheer depth of its formal artistry places “The Assassin” in a rather more rarefied realm than not only the classic action epics of King Hu and their ilk, but also popular hits like Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000), Zhang Yimou’s “Hero” (2002) and “House of Flying Daggers” (2004), and Wong Kar-wai’s “The Grandmaster” (2013), to name the most prominent recent examples of revered Asian auteurs making rare and overdue forays into martial-arts cinema. As one would expect, Hou implicitly grasps the expressive power of stillness and reserve, the ways in which silence can build tension and heighten interest. Above all, he never loses sight of the fact that the bodies he moves so fluidly and intuitively through space are human, and remain so even in death. As Jiaxin rightly tells Yinniang at one point: “Your skill is matchless, but your mind is hostage to human sentiments.” In that respect, Hou Hsiao-hsien proves himself to be not just the creator of this assassin but an unmistakably kindred spirit.