Thursday, November 5, 2015

Killer imagery in 'The Assassin'

A confusing beauty of a film from Taiwan.

Director Hou Hisiao-Hsien's The Assassin has been selected by Taiwan as its entry in this year's foreign language Oscar sweepstakes. I don't know if Hou's film will make the final five, but if sheer gorgeousness counts, it's a shoo-in.

Watching The Assassin is a bit like waking up inside someone else's dream. This beautiful, disorienting and quietly absorbing tale focuses on a young woman (Shu Qi) who's ordered by her martial arts master to kill the man to whom she had been promised in marriage.

That's about the best I can do with a plot summary because Hou's movie is difficult to follow, perhaps more so for American audiences who aren't attuned to the movie's ninth-century historical backdrop.

But there's compensation. As lost as I sometimes got in Hou's movie, I couldn't take my eyes off the screen. The Assassin mixes martial arts, political maneuvering and dozens of characters with some of the most arrestingly beautiful imagery you'll ever see in a movie.

It's not likely that anyone this year will match the cinematography of Mark Lee Ping Bin when it comes to sumptuous allure, mystery and painterly composition.

Visual beauty -- replete with magnificent costumes and other-worldly landscapes -- helps get us through what seems an overabundant supply of intrigue and political machination built around an ethical question: Is it ever justifiable for a trained assassin simply to refuse to kill?

Perhaps knowing that his film rests on the power of its imagery, Hou moves slowly, lingering on every shot, sometimes fading to black between the film's episodes. When a new image arises, you almost feel as if you're waking from one dream and slipping into another.

Now, in fairness, it must be pointed out that some will find The Assassin frustratingly incomprehensible. If you're looking for a film with narrative drive and a compelling story, this is not a movie for you.

I get that, and normally I even might find myself in agreement with you.

But Hou's visual command approaches a mastery that's seldom seen in movies today.

Here's a martial arts film in which the fighting might be the film's least interesting element. The Assassin is at its best when it's serving up images that invite the eye to enter a world so gracefully realized, it only can be marveled at.

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