THE ASSASSIN (2015, Hou Hsiao-hsien)
A strange mix of both stripped-down minimalism and overly theatrical artifice makes this peculiar entry in Hou’s filmography a bewildering experience. Lacking the immediate, sensual emotion of MILLENNIUM MAMBO but more fluid and dazzling than something like CAFÉ LUMIÈRE, it’s a complex watch that nevertheless leaves you a little cold. In terms of performance, production design, and action choreoraphy, something feels false — the usually-present Shu Qi is a mask of stillness and focus, and at times the cast members look like stage actors playing dress-up and performing wuxia theater. But plenty of scenes — especially the interiors — have that dreamy, flowing-drape layering of movies like FLOWERS OF SHANGHAI, and it’s cut with the confident assertiveness of a seasoned vet. I’m being a little vague here, for a couple reasons: first, I saw this over a week ago and can’t remember some details; and second, the plot is extremely tough to comprehend on one viewing. This is more about ideas and history than it is about storytelling, and while that may work for some films, this one fights against that opacity. Also, what we can figure out about Shu’s character, which is that she allows her sentimentality to cloud her assassin duties, doesn’t change from beginning to end — so she’s a little static. But this is still an interesting movie to wrestle with and I’d recommend it to Hou fans. Maybe not too many others, though.