Don't let The Assassin's menacing title fool you. It is one of the most beautiful films you'll watch this New Zealand International Film Festival. The Assassin belongs in the lineage of wuxia —classic Chinese martial arts films— and it rightfully takes its place as one of the best, with its unique execution of the genre. The story is set in Tang dynasty era China. Nie Yinniang, the lead protagonist, was taken from home at the age of ten and put into training to become an expert killer. The girl comes of age, completes her training and emerges a young woman. As a final test of her strength of mind and emotion, her master, a reclusive nun princess Jiaxing, orders her to kill her cousin to whom she was betrothed as a child. Their bond was broken by his politically motivated marriage, so he would seem an easy target of a slighted woman's scorn.
The set up lays out a perfect playground for cat-and-mouse-chase scenes and serious martial arts action, but from the first opening frame it is evident that this film differs from its wuxia counterparts. The fight scenes are few and and resemble a mesmerising dance that weaves its way throughout the course of the film, rather than the near comical conflict we are accustomed to seeing. Astounding attention to detail is The Assassin's trump card. The costumes and set design are dripping with sumptuous colour and texture. Wide shots of gorgeous Chinese landscapes form a dreamy backdrop for the story and give space for pause in-between the overwhelming richness of the indoor scenes.
The Assassin may be a slow-burner but it is so visually stunning, each shot so meticulously planned, that every moment holds the viewer captive in its net of cinematic magic. The Taiwanese director Hsiao-hsien Hou spend five years orchestrating this film, winning him the Best Director at Cannes. Don't miss your chance to see The Assassin on the big screen at the suitably resplendent Civic, you will regret it.