Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB. Taiwan/China/Hong Kong/France, 2015. Central Motion Pictures, China Dream Film Culture Industry, Media Asia Films, Sil-Metropole Organisation, SpotFilms, Zhejiang Huace Film & TV. Screenplay by Cheng Ah, T’ien-wen Chu, Hsiao-Hsien Hou, Hai-Meng Hsieh, based on the story by Xing Pei. Cinematography by Ping Bin Lee. Produced by Hsiao-Hsien Hou, Wen-Ying Huang, Ching-Song Liao. Music by Giong Lim. Production Design by Wen-Ying Huang. Costume Design by Wen-Ying Huang. Film Editing by Chih-Chia Huang, Ching-Song Liao. Cannes Film Festival 2015. Toronto International Film Festival 2015. Washington Film Critics Awards 2015.
The news that Hou Hsiao-Hsien has decided to make a film in the wuxia genre will have his fans anticipating his selling out to mass market appeal, but fear ye not: this beautiful, poetic film manages to have all the static shots and incidentally minimally plotting that have marked all of Hou’s subtle works since the beginning of his career. Qi Shu is excellent as a trained assassin during China’s Tang dynasty whose master, a nun, sends her back to the home she took her from as a child to assassinate a governor who is also the young woman’s cousin. Clearing all would-be attackers in her path, Shu’s challenge is that, despite her superb skills with swords and knives, she still employs human sentiment when deciding how to dispatch her assignments. She must go face to face with her latest intended victim whom she was supposed to marry before plans were changed, and finds herself caught between duty and nostalgia. Sumptuous images abound in a film that will not please action fans greatly, the fights happen in the corners of the story and are rarely prefaced with much explanation, while the character information is, typically of Hou, relayed almost accidentally through dialogue that feels like the result of an audience member eavesdropping. This has been sometimes a frustrating aspect of the director’s social realist work in the past, but here the enjoyment of being sunk into the almost magical atmosphere of the film’s world and the sympathy engendered by the characters (even though we never really get to know them) is enough to make it a memorable and satisfying experience.