The setting is 9th-century China and the provinces are in the grip of a power struggle. A young woman, Yinniang (Qi Shu, bearing a striking resemblance to Angelina Jolie), who was taken as a child to live with a martial-arts nun, is given the task of killing her cousin from the Weibo province. When she botches the task, her teacher complains that she is a brilliant killer physically, but lacks the cold bloodedness required to be a true assassin. The rest of the film sees her wrestling – albeit extremely elegantly – with this quandary: does she have what it takes to carry out the killing, or will she ruled by her emotions?
The opening scene of Yinniang failing in her assassination attempt is shot in black and white, but from the opening credits this film is positively seeped in colour. And what colour! Hou’s interiors and landscapes bask in candlelight or sunshine, the characters’ stunning costumes adding to the rich tonalities. This is a film to soak up, scene by scene. There are details to delight in everywhere, from the fabrics to the furniture via Yinniang’s black leather gloves and dagger-shaped ornament in her hair.
You have to succumb to its pace and allow yourself to accept that the plot is far too convoluted to worry about. Although we have a couple of characters giving us a lengthy exposition of what has led us to this precarious situation (one of them even sings it to us!) it’s not really anything to concern ourselves with as the essentials are pretty easy to grasp.
Although Hou has created ponderous scenes and a labyrinthine storyline, the fight scenes are lightning quick, and we often hear rather than see the swish of the blade or the arrow. There is an elegance to these fights that are in harmony with the rest of the film. There is no gore, no bloodshed. We understand if someone is injured via a split in a metal mask, or a gash in a waistband. It makes Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon look like 13 Assassins.
Hou’s sumptuous and spare world may not be to everyone’s liking, particularly those expecting more martial and less art. But this is a beautiful and engrossing film and it could well be a winner here in Cannes.