This film was screened several times in the Official Section at Leeds International Film Festival. The director, Hou Hsiao-hsien won the Best Director Award at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. This is a stunningly beautiful film. However, many people have remarked that the presentation of the plot is opaque.
The UK marketing uses the martial arts genre in the publicity, which is a mistake. This is a slow, artful film: it has parallels in terms of plot with Hero (Ying xiong 2002). Moreover, for a western audience, I think it takes some time to identify the separate characters, especially when for much of the time they wear the formal clothing of the period. In addition the film moves around in different time periods, but without the usual signalling of flashbacks.
How well you manage depends on the manner in which you view films. One friend managed most of the characters and plot at his first screening: impressive. I managed the basic characters and plot at my first screening but it was only the second time round that I followed the whole coherently.
Rather than describe the plot, the main point of which is relatively simple, it may help to describe those I believe to be the main characters:
Shu Qi as Nie Yinniang, the eponymous assassin, dressed in black when we meet her.
Fang-Yi Sheu as Princess Jiacheng and her twin sister, the princess Jiaxin turned Taoist nun
We meet Jiaxin along with Nie Yinniang in the opening sequence. Jiacheng only appears in flashback,
Chang Chen as Tian Ji’an, cousin to Nie Yinniang, formerly betrothed to her, and military governor (Jiedushi), ruling Weibo Circuit.
Zhou Yun as Lady Tian, Tian Ji’an’s wife. (Belongs to family of a separate Provincial ruler.) It seems that she is also a masked figure who duels with Nie Yinniang.
Satoshi Tsumabuki as the mirror polisher. Unidentified by name, the character’s title action is easy to miss: he appears late in the film when there is an attack in woods and he comes to the rescue. It seems that he has more scenes in the Japanese release version.
Ethan Juan as Xia Jing, Tian Ji’an’s bodyguard
Hsieh Hsin-Ying as Huji ( her name means ‘orchid’), Tian Ji’an’s concubine and a dancer
Ni Dahong as Nie Feng, Nie Yinniang’s father and Tian Ji’an’s provost.
And there is an older whiskered character who I believe is Jacques Picoux as Lady Tian’s teacher: he appears twice sitting in his study.
Note it opens in black and white and then changes to colour. And whilst the bulk of the film is in Academy ratio [1.37:1], there are two sequences (of only two shots each) in widescreen ratio [1.85:1] . For more …