Plot and character are almost incidental to this wuxia from Hsiao-Hsien. I wonder whether the story is a bit like the Chinese equivalent of King Arthur or Robin Hood – so familiar that slicing away the exposition will still leave a recognisable film intact. Very little is made easy for the Western viewer. There are hints of contemporary tensions between Taiwan and mainland China in the conflict between the Tang dynasty and the province of Weibo. Nie Yinniaang has to choose between her allegiance to the imperial court (who have trained her to be an assassin), and an underlying connection to the place where she grew up, her family, and a buried youthful romance.
But leaving all that sort of ill-informed speculation aside, much of The Assassin feels to me like an exercise in style. It's no exaggeration to say that the film is painterly when it comes to composition, sumptuous when it comes to set-design, and dazzling when it comes to cinematography. Often it's left to the sound (seemingly diagetic – in that it's not always clear where it's coming from) to subtly build and release tension. The martial arts choreography is almost embarrassingly absent. Instead, the film is all about people in space, observing each other and deciding where their loyalties lie.