The midday sun beats down unforgivingly. It’s noon by the way the shadow eats away at the two horses, swallowing them whole and making them appear gaunt and two-legged. The harsh light bleaches the world into blinding whiteness: only two colors remain, white and black. The starkness mirrors the two women who now appeared onscreen, one is wearing white and the other black. The woman in white hands the woman in black a dagger and instructs her to kill a man.
Cut to a team of riders. The woman in black watches the leader silently through the trees. Then, without warning, she runs out and in one swift motion slits his throat. No blood spills onscreen, but seconds later, the man topples off his horse.
This is “The Assassin” (《刺客聶隱娘》.
“The Assassin,” which won the 2015 Cannes Film Festival “Best Director” Award, is the long-awaited film from Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien following Hou’s 2007 collaboration with French actress Juliette Binoche in remaking “Le Voyage Du Ballon Rouge” (“The Flight of the Red Balloon”).
The story takes place in 9th century China of Tang Dynasty and revolves around Nie Yinniang (聶隱娘/played by Taiwanese actress Shu Qi). Yinniang is the daughter of a general. Taken away at a tender age, she was raised as an assassin. Now, having grown and perfected the art of combat, she was returned to her birthplace with the assignment to kill the governor, Tian Ji’an (played by Taiwanese actor Chang Chen) who was once her betrothed.
But in opposition to what is expected with a film where the protagonist is a kick-ass swordswoman — elaborate fight scenes, kick-ass martial art moves, “The Assassin” is predominantly silent and static. The finished product is Hou’s contrarian interpretation of the film genre wuxia (武俠).