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Hou’s ‘The Assassin’ offers martial arts with an arty twist

From left, actress Hsieh Hsin-Ying, director Hou Hsiao-Hsien, and actress Sheu Fang-Yi pose for photographers during a photo call for the film Nie Yinniang (The Assassin), at the 68th international film festival, Cannes, southern France, Thursday, May 21, 2015. (AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau)

CANNES, France (AP) — “The Assassin” is a rare thing — a martial-arts movie in competition for prizes at Cannes.

It’s hardly typical action fare. The film is by Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien, who brings a painterly palette to the tale of an enigmatic killer in 9th-century China.

Set at a time when central authority was challenged by rebellious provinces, the film follows a mysterious woman in black (Shu Qi) sent to her home region to carry out an assassination.

Hou is known for beautiful, delicate films such as “A Time to Live, a Time to Die” and “The Flowers of Shanghai.” ”The Assassin” — an action movie with more stillness than action — is a series of gorgeous tableaux interspersed with tightly controlled bursts of violence.

“I’ve seen a lot of kung fu films, and I particularly like Japanese films, films with samurai, because the combats are so realistic,” Hou told reporters at a Cannes press conference Thursday. His film is one of 19 competing for Cannes’ Palme d’Or, which will be awarded Sunday.

“There are very few tricks in Japanese martial arts films. … I wanted to depict the same realism. I wanted to express the same energy and power.”

Some viewers unfamiliar with the Tang Dynasty period and its literature found the film’s plot hard to follow, but critics hailed Hou’s signature beauty and control.

Variety said that “shot for shot, it’s perhaps the most ravishingly beautiful film Hou has ever made,” and noted that “gore-seekers with short attention spans need not apply.”

“The Assassin” cost $15 million, which the director called “a luxury” — though he said he would only be able to fulfil his goal of making a second martial-arts film if the investors got their money back.

He said many young Asian directors try to make “Hollywood-style” films, in contrast to Hou’s generation, the Taiwanese New Wave of the 1980s, and earlier innovative cinema movements including the French New Wave and Italian Neorealism.

Hou, 68, said he would continue doing things his own way.

“When you’re creating films, the audience is not there,” Hou said. “If you keep thinking about the audience then it becomes something else, another kind of film.

“Which path you want to take is a personal choice.”

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Associated Press Writer Angela Chen contributed to this report.

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