A film not to watch, but to gaze at, Hou Hsiao-Hsien's "The Assassin" has famously been 25 years in gestation and five years in production. It seems extravagant — until you see it, at which point you start to wonder how he possibly can have dashed off something of such extraordinary beauty and observation so quickly. The pacing is geologically slow (as though every minute of those 25 years is distilled into every shot) and the story is a game of join the dots in which the dots are spaced so far apart it's hard to connect them into a bigger picture. But what bigger picture can there be than almost any one of these individually colossal frames (not literally, Hou shoots in Academy ratio), so packed with layers of painterly detail that foreground-middleground-background hardly covers it (Hou and DP Mark Lee Ping Bang adhere to the Christopher Doyle school of shooting from behind billowing curtains sometimes, I must say, nearly to the point of distraction). The story becomes a moment-to-moment thing an epic visual poem concerned with the putting on of an earring or the setting of a bath or the gradual obscuring of a cliffside by a cloud that roils up from far below. There are miracles in these shots, things that looks like the most serendipitous happenstance, but even over the course of five years of on-and-off shooting, no one gets that lucky that often. So, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, did you direct the clouds?
Opening with a prologue in black-and-white, Hou announces several of his intentions early. Dialogue will be minimal, exposition almost non-existent, and the bursts of action will be perfectly staged, completely inhabited, and over before you know it — this is wuxia as art film, not the other way around. He also establishes that this will be a story dominated by women, as Princess/Nun/Fighting Master Jiaxing (Sheu Fang-Yi) tells her silent, lethal protege Yinniang (Shu Qi) to dispatch a man passing by, a pawn in the bigger game of politics that the film alludes to but rarely explains. Darting near-silently from cover, with a quick shuck of her knife, the governor's throat is slit, whereupon his guardsmen descend on Yinniang. Here's where we really see how different Hou's approach is going to be — he pulls back from this action, allowing it to take place far off in the forests, a flurry of flashing blades amid the tree trunks and foliage. It's ridiculously gorgeous, and he hasn't even introduced the color yet, which happens with the opening title, set against an indecently crimson sky at sunset.
The barely sketched-in story goes that, as Yinniang failed to kill one of her targets because he was with his young son at the time, the Princess Nun Jiaxing punishes her human weakness by ordering her home to kill the man she was betrothed to, before his mother betrayed the match and Yinniang was sent away to train. This man, Tian Ji'an (Chang Chen) is now the most powerful leader in the breakaway state of Weibo, and has problems of his own, with a wife (Zhou Yun) jealous of his favorite concubine, Huji (Hsieh Hsin-Ying), who is pregnant with his child. Yinniang will also have to contend with her parents (her father is an advisor to Tian Ji'an), on her way to making her ultimate choice between loyalty to her creed and her Master, or to her innate sense of decency and her old, never-spoken love for Tian Ji'an. (As in other arty wuxia pictures, the depth of someone's love is often inversely proportional to how much interaction they have with its object). Elsewhere, Hou populates his startling landscapes with various short-lived soldiers and raiding parties, a bald wizard figure with whose facial hair grows such that his eyebrows meet his wiry white beard, a female assassin adversary in a red tunic and gold mask, and a man who polishes mirrors.
Suggesting in every sweep of the landscape and every textured, brocaded interior that 9th Century rural China might well have been the most beautiful time and place to have lived, Hou's concern is not to deliver thrills, though the infrequent fight scenes, and even rarer, subtle wire work, suggest it's not because he wouldn't know how. Instead, he presents us his scenes like individually wrapped gifts, each one a small masterpiece of timing, set design, costume, and immaculately researched detail. Almost never employing close-ups, he often shows the room to us before anyone enters, or hovers after the action's over. Historical customs like covering one's mouth when drinking are woven in unshowily: this is simply how people do things here. Because maybe Hou's greatest achievement in "The Assassin" is a very rare kind of period naturalism, where he makes this elaborate, exquisitely detailed past feel real, and the people seem human. A hug of comfort between Tian Jian and his concubine; a child's giggle of delight as he chases a butterfly; a lingering, quiet shot as a servant has a hard time poking a decorative comb into Lady Tian's elaborate hairdo.
His actors are all wonderful, especially Shu Qi, who has fallen in onscreen love with Chang Chen for Hou before, three times over, in fact, in the film "Three Times." Her impassive face speaks volumes (for she herself says next to nothing) of her determination and solitude, whether she's mid-fight, watching silently from the sidelines, or perched in the rafters eavesdropping. And Chang Chen, who essentially has the arthouse wuxia triple with "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon," "The Grandmaster," and now this, is equally graceful, whether fighting, holding court, or, as in one lovely, lively scene, dancing.
But it isn't really about the people as much as about the pictures, and for once that does not seem to be a trade off that compromises the power of the resulting film at all. These are pictures that feel like time (which will make them hard to sit through for the impatient) — they feel steeped, marinated in time, as though Hou has waited, not 25 years, but eleven centuries with his camera parked on this hillside or beside that thatched barn, to get just exactly the right combination of light and cloud and movement and stillness, just the right fall of a sleeve or tremble of a drape in the breeze. It has been seven years since Hou's last film, "The Flight of the Red Balloon," and I hope it won't be as long till his next, but "The Assassin" is the literal embodiment of the rewards, for the film and for the viewer, of patience and held breath. [A-]