Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin was selected as the Taiwanese entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards last year. Much more importantly, Hou Hsiao-hsien (born 1947) won Best Director at Cannes for his latest, magisterial film.

A Taiwan-China-Japan production, in Chinese Mandarin with English subtitles, The Assassin was also ranked as the best movie of 2015 by Sight & Sound. Chu Tien-wen ‘s screen-play is based on a ninth century Tang Dynasty story, Nie Yinniang, drawn from the so-called Wuxia tradition.

The assassin of the piece is the eponymous Nie Yinniang (Qi Shu) a female killer who is instructed to kill corrupt government officials by Jiaxin (Ethan Juan), the nun who has reared her and taught her martial arts from the age of ten. In combat Yinniang is fearless, but while she can get herself into the frame, as it were, she fails to deliver the fatal blow, showing she has a heart, after all.

In an attempt to to make her protege steely and heartless, Jiaxin sends Yinniang to Weibo Circuit in northern China where she must kill the military governor, Tian Ji'an. This man is a fiercely protective family figure with a wife and three children to guard from potential rivals and attackers. More to the point, he is also Nie Yanning’s cousin to whom she was once been betrothed by his late mother. Unfortunately for Nie Yanning, the marriage plans were changed following a new family alliance, so she may be carrying a personal grudge.

‘May be carrying a grudge’, one writes guardedly, because in truth Nie Yanning’s feelings remain unclear throughout, and she seems bound by duty rather than sentiment. Aside from the fact that she says very little, everything  about her is veiled and uncertain, which makes her all the more intriguing as the film’s principal character.

 In terms of exposition, the sparse narrative of The Assassin does not offer much by way of historical background. Keeping the plot edgily sparse and unmediated also means that the viewer must try to learn what may be simmering underneath in the way one character might look at another in the silence after dialogue. The allure is in the subterfuge, in other words, the internecine rivalries which the film often does not bother explaining.

So you become absorbed by the rituals, the magic and alchemy which also have their place, but not too much. Thankfully the film does not at all resemble the tiresome Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon which made too much of martial arts, and all that annoying leaping through space. In fact it couldn’t be more different as a film.

Filmed in colour, with a brief black-and-white prologue, Mark Lee Ping Bin‘s painterly cinematography revels in sumptuous interiors, in Indian silks, in lush exteriors, in nature at its most appealing. A tree waves in the breeze, birds and insects constantly thrum through the soundtrack.A scene you will not forget is the one involving the whorls of mist circling above an early morning lake, tree branches reflected in a still tracery in the water. 

The acting is faultless, the set designs and the stage-like choreography are beautiful, but Lee Ping Bin’s inspired camera work is surely the most memorable aspect of The Assassin which is a masterpiece of film-making.

Paddy Kehoe