A look that kills
The great Taiwanese auteur Hou Hsiao-Hsien is one of the most revered names in contemporary world cinema. His much-admired films of the last 20 years or so include Flight of the Red Balloon (2007), Café Lumière (2003), Millennium Mambo (2001), Flowers of Shanghai (1998) and The Puppetmaster (1993). His new film, The Assassin, won him the best director award at the most recent Cannes Film Festival, but the film itself is not getting the lavish praise that some of its predecessors did. Still, it does have the ravishing visual beauty and the offbeat approach to narrative that you’d perhaps expect from this director’s films.
Shu Qi (star of two previous Hou films) plays the title character, a young princess trained as an assassin for a conflict between neighboring states in the time of the T’ang dynasty. It’s an oddly subdued mixture of historical romance and martial arts film, with a convoluted story that’s difficult to follow. Visual splendor and the hot-and-cold rhythms of the dramatics are the chief rewards.