After an eight-year hiatus, director Hou Hsiao-Hsien is back with a martial-arts movie, though it is one as reverent to genre trappings as Andrei Tarkovsky was to science fiction or fellow Taiwanese new waver Tsai Ming Liang's film "The Hole" is to apocalypse cinema—ascetic and entropic, with its subgenre's spare parts disassembled and rearranged for curiosity. Ever since it premiered at Cannes, "The Assassin" has been noted as much for its beauty as its impenetrability, but on repeat viewings, Hou's choice of moments have a clarity that cut through with the precision of the protagonist's blade.
The story, based on a piece of Tang Dynasty-era short fiction, is set amid a bubbling conflict between the Tang and Weibo, one of a few military outposts seeking independence from the imperial court. At a young age, assassin Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi) was snatched from the latter and trained to kill for the former, yet her expert lethality is still muddled by her conscience so she's sent back home, to family and memory, for a mission of political and personal severity. The target, Weibo's military governor Tian Ji'an (Chang Chen), is her cousin once promised in marriage, now caught up between external rule and internal dissent, wife and concubine, and, suddenly, her again.
The imbalance of power reasserts itself at every step down the ladder from the top of the empire to the back of the woods. Weibo wavers under the thumb of the empire, the people of Weibo under its governor, the governor's concubine under his wife, the assassin's heart under her orders, and so forth. It's hard not to read the film in the context of Hou's interrogative historiography, exposing the lasting effects of repression from Taiwan's fraught relationship to various colonial overlords, China in particular, and its systematic penetration of every societal corner.
As the merciful assassin, Shu Qi has more agency than her previous characters in Hou films, yet the fatalism remains, her Grim Reaper-like presence a peripheral reminder of everyone's mortality. As such, it's more of a ghost story: The characters haunt each other or spook themselves. Flitting between melancholy and rage, they roam through purgatorial dejection over old betrayals or fight off potential damnation over new ones. It's a fable reduced to an elemental sadness.
The fights, atypical for a Hou film, function more like scares, punctuating the proceedings with apoplectic brevity. Hou's ambivalence over depicting the action is reflected in Nie Yinniang's inability to complete her mission and the denouement is its own statement on the futility of violent resolution. Hou stated in the LA Times that he doesn't like the "floral style of fighting"(possibly a shot fired at "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," the only Taiwanese film the Oscars gave a shit about), and his film spends more time lingering over surrounding flora. Mark Lee Ping Bin's slow roving camera work, lurking through curtains and corridors, around trees and mountain rock, continuously reorients its character's spatial relationships, to family, to class, and to the earth itself, with the framing hewed closer to Chinese classical paintings (which Hou felt "transported into" during location scouting). Everyone appears like a brush stroke toiling amid nature's onward march.
That the plot is doled out in elliptical fashion suggests both a subversive opacity meant to spite the Chinese and Taiwanese money that backed the production and a comment on the pointlessly labyrinthine politics that govern both.