It’s been eight years since Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien released a feature (his lone European project, Flight of the Red Balloon). Much of that time was spent on the sheer physical effort of mounting a meticulous period piece, a film that would find the arthouse filmmaker indulging in his first martial-arts picture. Well. One can only pity the unsuspecting chopsocky fan who wanders into The Assassin after spotting the groovalicious poster, which features Transporter star Shu Qi brandishing a dagger. The scenes of swordplay are brief, clean, and void of fun. They are a momentary distraction from the film’s real concern, which is something to do with emptiness and regret.
The time is the 9th century. A young woman, Nie Yinniang (Shu), has been trained in isolation as an assassin.