There’s a distinct promise that comes with a film of the martial arts genre. High octane sword splicing and garish violence; it’s the kind of cinema to make the bloodthirsty giddy. But when you hear who’s behind The Assassin, it should come as no surprise to find that it carries that notorious label rather lightly. After all, Hou Hsiao-Hsien is a director used to honing in on his characters, rather than killing them off in quick succession.
We walk quietly through the temples of 7th century China. At the age of ten, Nie Yinniang was abducted from her family by a nun and trained to become a pitiless, agile assassin. Returning to her hometown of Weibo years later, she’s assigned the task of taking down the town governor – a man, unfortunately, she knows all too well.
Shu Qi plays The Assassin’s black widow-like doyenne with a vindictive, discomforting silence. Her history is suggested, rather than being shown in black and white to allow the film’s lustrous visuals to overpower it. Immersed in Hsiao-Hsien’s slow, open landscapes, it feels as though we stumble upon its story rather than being dragged through it; a martial arts anomaly of sorts. Considering the genre usually blinds you with frantic kineticism, this feels rich and steady, burrowing under your skin and resonating with you for the days that follow.
The Assassin paces itself so slowly that cherry blossom grows from each tentative footstep. A visual masterpiece with a nuanced tale to tell, this is as enigmatic and beautiful as martial arts cinema gets.
The Assassin opens in cinemas on January 22nd