There is a marvelous moment in the Pulitzer Prize-winning stage musical “Sunday in the Park with George,” the sumptuous fictional telling of the life of painter Georges Seurat by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, when the mouths of the collective audience drop in amazement as perhaps his most famous painting, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” (which makes its home in the Art Institute of Chicago), literally comes to life.It is a most emotional sequence. It is, in a word, breathtaking.
And so it is with “The Assassin,” the latest film from acclaimed Taiwanese director-screenwriter Hou Hsiao-Hsien (“Flowers of Shanghai,” “A City of Sadness,” “Millennium Mambo”). It too, will take your breath away. Instead of a Post-Impressionist’s grand dotted vision of a late 19th century Parisian park, we are treated to majestic Chinese landscape paintings come to life — impossibly lush landscapes, valleys and mountain peaks (the film was shot in Inner Mongolia) so gloriously captured by cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bing, they almost defy description. Regal hues of red and gold flood palace halls. Whispers of white clouds and mystical fog take their sweet time traversing grand vistas. Quiet beauty has never been so fully realized.
And yes, there is a story befitting all the grandeur.
A young girl in 9th century China is kidnapped and sent to live with the mysterious nun-princess Jiaxin (Sheu Fang-Yi) who turns out to be the greatest martial arts masterin the world, and who instructs her young ward in the art of killing. The girl, Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), grows to be a beauty whose stunning looks are surpassed onlyby her stealth reflexesand deadly skills with a knife, assassinating those whom she is commanded by her teacher to eliminate.
But it is not murder for murder’s sake.
A series of twists and turns finds Yinniang returning to her homeland to kill her cousin Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen), now the governor of thevolatile and mighty province on the frontier of the vast Chinese empire in the waning days of the Tang dynasty. He is also the man to whom she was once betrothed, but who married another for the sake of provincial peace. Yinniang is suddenly torn between the love she once felt and her killer’s creed. She is faced with that which is forbidden any assassin: a conscience. “The way of the sword is pitiless,” her teacher scolds. What’s a girl to do?
Hou (who won best director at Cannes in May for this film) has assembled a masterful cast and crew in a film that moves at a snail’s pace, truth be told, but the beauty of each prolonged wide shot (there are little to no close-ups in the entire film) and the minimalist dialogue prove a most potent combination. We are captivated by the beauty we see, lulled into a sense of bliss. We are jolted by bursts of vengeance and violence, and even those are stylized beyond all comprehension.
Hou is a master indeed.
THE ASSASSIN [s3r star=3/4] Well Go USA presents a film direted by Hou Hsiao-Hsien. Written by Hou, Chu Tien-Wen, Hsieh Hai-Meng and Zhong Acheng. Running time: 104 minutes. In Mandarin with English subtitles. Opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre.