The first time director Ang Lee made a martial arts film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon went on to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film (and three other Academy Awards) in 2000. So perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that when yet another art-house Taiwanese director – Hou Hsiao-hsien – tried his hand at the genre for the first time, he also won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival.
The Assassin, which features the actress Shu Qi in the title role, is based on a popular legend from the Tang Dynasty. It tells the story of a young girl who is kidnapped by a nun and eventually trained to become a skilled assassin. She is caught in a dilemma when her target is a man who also happens to be both her cousin and former lover.
Hou is hardly a newcomer on the film-festival circuit. The 68 year-old has already claimed the Jury Prize at Cannes for his 1993 film The Puppetmaster and the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Award for City of Sadness in 1989.
The reviews for The Assassin have been overwhelmingly positive. The South China Morning Post says the film “transforms a potentially simplistic action-drama premise into a piece of strikingly beautiful and elegiac visual poetry”. Variety, too, says the feature is “the most ravishingly beautiful film Hou has ever made, and certainly one of his most deeply transporting”.
Still, the film is not for everyone. Like most of Hou’s previous works, The Assassin isn’t the easiest to understand. There are very few narrative moments in the film (Shu Qi has less than 10 lines) and one of those comes at the beginning, explaining the political situation at that moment in Chinese history. Hou says even that nearly didn’t make it into the film: “Wild Bunch [the French sales agent] was worried people wouldn’t understand the film so they asked me to put it in,” he told the LA Times dismissively.
The Assassin also marks the first cross-straits production directed by Hou. Hou only received about $4 million from the Taiwan government to make the film but the production quickly ran over-budget. Eventually, over half of the film’s final production cost was financed by investors from the mainland.
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