(director/writer: Hou Hsiao-Hsien; screenwriters: T’ien-wen Chu, Tien-Wen Chu, Cheng Ah, Hai Meng Hsieh; cinematographer: Mark Lee Ping-Bin; editors: Liao Ching-sung, Pauline Huang Chih-chia; music: Lim Giong; cast: Shu Qi (Nie Yinniang), Chang Chen (Tian Ji’an), Tsumabuki Satoshi (The Mirror Polisher), Zhou Yun (Lady Tian), Juan Ching-tian (Xia Jing), Hsieh Hsin-ying (Huji), Sheu Fang-yi (Princess Jiacheng / Princess-Nun Jiaxin ); Runtime: 106; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Hou Hsiao-Hsien; Well Go (Central Motion Pictures Corporation); 2015-Taiwan-Mandarin with English subtitles)

Offers a uniquely beautiful take on the traditional wuxia film.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The talented veteran Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien(“Three Times”/”Flowers of Shanghai“/”The Puppetmaster”) is writer-director, who sets this mythical confrontational martial-arts adventure story in 9th-century China and makes it into a meditation on beauty. Hou tells it through stunning visuals and in his usual offbeat way of storytelling. Those expecting plenty of action might be disappointed that the action, terrifically choreographed in spurts, takes a back seat to the provocative narrative about finding peace within and messaging that the most humane path to follow is a nonviolent one. It is stylishly executed and offers a uniquely beautiful take on the traditional wuxia film.

The esteemed director won the award for Best Director at the recent Cannes Festival. Although a simple story, it was somewhat hard to fully keep track of the narrative because of all the scheming. Shu Qi, as the assassin, offers a compelling opaque performance, where the action figure must constantly wrestle with her emotions to have compassion for people.

It opens with a prologue shot in black-and-white. An assassin,Yinniang (Shu Qi), after 13 years in exile, has been assigned to kill a corrupt governor (Chen Chang) in her hometown of Weibo. She was once betrothed to him. Yinniang decides not to when she sees him doting on his sleeping son and is unable to take the life of such a loving father.

The film is then shot in color. We learn that the young hit-woman, Yinniang, with a big heart, was in her childhood abducted by a decorated general and trained by a princess-nun Jiaxin (Sheu Fang-yi) in the martial arts to assassinate corrupt officials. On her return to her Weibo island birthplace, she confronts her parents, her past and her repressed feelings.

We learn of the uneasy relations between the Imperial Court and the Weibo province. As for Yinniang, by disobeying her kill order she has chosen to break away from her captors.

The richly textured slow-paced art film is a different kind of martial arts film, one that can be appreciated by the thoughtful viewer.

REVIEWED ON 11/23/2015 GRADE: A-