Opening 30 Jun 2016
The figure of a slender woman, clad in a simple black garment, is hidden among the bamboo trees. She looks sad but concentrated, moving gracefully. A moment ago she appeared from nowhere, throwing herself onto a galloping horse and skillfully cutting the throat of the rider. It is Nie Yinniang, the assassin, coldly eliminating corrupt ministers. The place of action is China in the 9th century, towards the end of the Tang Dynasty. Nie Yinniang can be a brutally efficient killing machine but she still has not learned to keep all emotions out of it. She even refused to kill one victim because a child was looking on. This act of mercy calls for punishment. Nie Yinniang is a slave to her master. When she was only 10 years old she was abducted and given to the nuns to be trained as assassin. To prove her loyalty to her teacher Jiaxin she is sent back to the village of her birth with the command of killing the ruling governor Lord Tian who is also her cousin. After 13 years of her disappearance she has to confront her family, as well as dealing with her secrete love for Tian Ji'an. They were once promised in marriage. Her suffering is eminent by just watching her face (the fascinating face of Shu Qui). With some fake attempt at ambushing she alerts Tian of her presence. Will she be able to sacrifice the man she loves? The only alternative would be: breaking forever with the sacred way of the righteous assassins!
This is a gentle-moving film with precise and long takes of open landscapes. Tension is added by intrigues of government officials, even if I couldn't follow all the details. Don't expect a brutal martial arts film with fast and noisy action. There is practically no bloodshed as the martial art sequences are almost “down to earth” but practiced with a furious and concentrated elegance.
The Taiwanese director Hsiao-Hsien Hou and his cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bing have made a mesmerizing and visually striking film. Each take seems like a painting reminding me of the old masters in a museum with their muted colors and balanced setting. The story might be a bit confusing – or rather too detailed for the layman – but you should just sit back and enjoy this visual masterpiece and let yourself be transported into another world. For this historical martial arts epic the Taiwanese director Hsiao-Hsien Hou received the award for Best Director at Cannes in 2015. (Birgit Schrumpf)