A figure in black glides wordlessly through the landscapes of “The Assassin.” It’s a young woman, wearing a long black coat and an unreadable expression. In her hand is a wicked-looking curved knife. In her heart is conflict.
Named Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), she’s been trained since childhood in the art of killing. “The Assassin” is the story of a killer experiencing a crisis of conscience.
“Your heart lacks resolve,” her mentor (Sheu Fang-Yi), a nun with a lethal political agenda, diagnoses when Nie Yinniang spares the life of a high-level official designated for death by the nun. As punishment, she’s dispatched to kill a man to whom she was long ago betrothed. Do or die.
Set in ninth century China, “The Assassin” is a picture of breathtaking beauty. Filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien, in collaboration with director of cinamatrograpy Lee Ping-Bin, has so rigorously composed his shots that every frame looks like a painting — a still-life painting in many instances. Shots are held for extended periods, inviting the viewer to sink deeply into them.
Images of mists rising toward mountain peaks; of a delicately choreographed knife duel in a forest of gleaming silver birches; of the woman in black, partially obscured behind gossamer curtains, silently watching, waiting — all beguile the eye.
The visuals relegate the acting to secondary importance. They overwhelm the story. And they make “The Assassin” unforgettable.
☆☆☆☆ out of 5
Cast: Shu Qi, Chang Che, Sheu Fang-Yi.
Director: Hou Hsiao-Hsien.
Running time: 1:45.
Rated: Not rated; for mature audiences (contains stylized violence).
Note: In Mandarin, with English subtitles.