Huji is pregnant.

If you don’t know who Huji is or why it matters that she’s pregnant, you still won’t after it’s mentioned twice in Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s wuxia film, The Assassin.

Set in seventh-century China, The Assassin tells a threadbare story about Yinniang (Shu Qi), a young woman whose parents gave her away as a child to a nun “to save her.” She’s taught to be an assassin, complete with the policy of keeping professional and personal matters separate. Once she finished her studies, Yinniang was returned to her family, even though her mentor had told her, “You have mastered the sword, yet your heart lacks resolve.”

Besides Yinniang’s parents (Yong Mei and Ni Dahong), there’s a host of characters here whose relationships and stature are unclear. One thing is certain: Yinniang has been tasked with killing Tian (Cheng Chan), the man she was to marry at 15. But unlike Difret’s Hirut, Yinniang loves Tian and struggles with her mission.

This, as far as one can glean, is all in service of avoiding war. There are court scenes, there are talks with Mom, there’s an unidentified woman who slowly plays an instrument not unlike a lap steel while telling of a bluebird who sang and danced itself to death. Long pauses and static scenes are the norm. This goes on for nearly two hours, little of it connects, and it took four screenwriters, including Hou, to adapt the film from a short story.

What Hou excels at, however, is painterly compositions: The film opens in crisp black and white, then a blood sky fills the screen as the title credit is revealed. Hou’s shots are long and majestic, with gorgeously photographed ancient architecture and sumptuous costuming of whoever these people are. It’s easy to get lost in the beauty; however, it’s easier to just get lost.

One takeaway The Assassin offers is that although—not surprisingly—patriarchy reigned in this milieu, women were also accepted as powerful and even dangerous. No one waves Yinniang off when there are whispers of her return, and Shu’s beautiful killer is as graceful as she is lethal in the few action scenes that take place. Yes, there is fighting, but much less than one expects from a martial arts film. When Tian sends his provost…somewhere…to protect…someone, he says, “Be ready for anything.” Or, you know, nothing.

The Assassin opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema.

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