Martial Arts Epic 'The Assassin' Is The Year's Most Beautiful Film

Director Hou Hsiao-hsien's long-awaited wuxia epic The Assassin is a stunning masterpiece that will leave you both puzzled and yearning to see it a second time. Inspired equally by director King Hu's own beautiful wuxia films and ancient Chinese landscape paintings, Hou melded his arthouse sensibilities with the all-too familiar martial arts genre and created one of the best and most unique films in years.

Wuxia is the ancient Chinese genre known for its traveling swordsmen and women who adhere to Confucian principles, and despite this being Hou's first foray into the genre he is faithful to its formula. Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi) is the film's titular killer, a master of her craft who is ordered to kill Tian Ji'an (Chang Chen), the governor of a semi-autonomous province in 9th Century China. Yinniang is bound by duty to carry out the task, but she is conflicted by her own feelings. Her mark is a cousin she was once betrothed to, forced apart by political events beyond her control. She fits the mold of the wuxia lone wolf but is also the typical Hou protagonist: an individual who is isolated and estranged within a greater, indifferent world.

Yinniang is efficient and can be ruthless. Fights in The Assassin are generally brief, sometimes lasting only a few seconds as mere bursts of violence. Hou de-emphasizes fights as the centerpieces they tend to be in wuxia, but that is not to say they are not terrific. Even without spurts of blood or the high-wire flying, they're simultaneously brutal and graceful.

Barely leaving any scraps of the narrative at times, the viewer will likely be left somewhat puzzled upon leaving The Assassin. Like other Hou films, The Assassin forgoes plot efficiency and momentum for moments of contemplation. But whether it's the glorious landscapes of northeastern China or the sumptuous, colorful interiors of royal abodes, the camera of cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin (a longtime Hou collaborator) always lingers during these awe-inspiring moments, letting the viewer soak in every detail of verdant birch forests or sheer curtains slowly swaying in the breeze.

The greatest conflict in The Assassin is the one within Yinniang, pitting her emotions against an established code of ethics she's bound to. "Your skills are ruthless, but your mind is hostage to human sentiments," Yinniang is told. Whether she can muster the will to kill the man she still loves is the tension that hangs over the film. The Assassin is a beautiful fable but also heartbreaking tragedy—one of a woman who finds she has no place in the world around her.

The Assassin opens today in New York (at IFC Center and Film Society Of Lincoln Center) and Los Angeles (at Laemmle Playhouse 7 in Pasadena and Laemmle Ahrya Fine Arts in Beverly Hills). Hou Hsiao-hsien will be in-person for Q&As this Friday and Saturday in Los Angeles. Click here for more information on release dates across the country.