That Hou Hsiao-hsien has long been among the world's great filmmakers is not quite accurate. What the Taiwanese director conjures are not movies in any traditional sense, but organisms -- cinematic life-forms that breathe and pulse, are part of a natural order and can remain static for long periods, then experience a violent burst of reinvention. "The Assassin" is such a film, and may become Hou's biggest hit here, as it marks his first venture into martial-arts territory. But if "The Assassin" is a martial-arts film, it's unlike any one we've seen before.
Set during the eighth century and China's fabled Tang dynasty, "The Assassin" opens at a point where the emperor's plan for fortifying his realm has backfired: The garrisons that have been established on the country's perimeter are declaring themselves autonomous; power is being seized. One such usurper is Tian Ji'an (Chang Chen), who is targeted by Yinniang (Shu Qi), a killer so skilled she brings down multiple swordsmen with only a knife, and her lethal speed. Yinniang is a figurative force of nature, but -- via Hou -- she is also connected quite literally to the forests and the wind: A breeze marking her presence blows almost constantly though "The Assassin," making curtains sway and candles flicker. When Yinniang cuts a throat, the air rushes through the branches as if life itself is flowing through the trees
This kind of oxymoronic naturalism is always part of Hou's approach. His characters are humbled by their contrast with the enormity and grandeur of the world, even when his settings are urban and the problems profound. In "The Assassin," the glimpses Hou gives of the great outdoors are primeval and breathtaking, especially given the contrast they make with the film's interior dramas.
While there are connections between characters that will go unexplained here, the really critical connection in "The Assassin" is between the movie and the world -- the world of feudal China and the world of the viewer's mind. There is an extraordinary level of tension throughout, even when everyone is standing still.