Based on a short 9th century story, 刺客聶隱娘 (The Assassin) (Blu-ray release 2015-12-18) is a Taiwan movie about a girl who was taken by a nun and trained as an assassin. The nun sends her to kill the governor of a province, who happens to be her betrothed previously. Seeing him and his son, she chooses not to kill him.
This is a really special movie. It has a 1.41:1 aspect ratio. If the title gives one the impression of a typical martial arts movie or having a lot of action scenes involving killing, that cannot be further from the truth. It has the absolute minimum of action scenes, even though a lot of those were shot meticulously in the 440000 feet of film used. Only 10800 feet of the film remained in the final movie. Fantastical and gravity defying action scenes are all cut in order to strive for realism. Likewise, all the costumes, sets, details such as the type of groceries and morning drums are all made as historically correct as possible to show the real Tang dynasty. Not only is there minimal action scenes, even the dialogue is kept to an absolute minimum. The protagonist only has 9 lines of dialogue. Apparently the director is a firm believer in telling story through image instead of dialogue. So what does the movie actually contain? Long shots that allow the audience to admire every detail in the scene, and gorgeous shots that look like Chinese classical paintings.
This is an arthouse movie. A really complete story was supposed to be in the screenplay, which was published publicly before the movie is released. The director encouraged people to read it before seeing this movie, because so much of it was left in the cutting room floor. The movie only presents the middle one-third section of the original screenplay. In conjunction with the cutting of scenes with non-essential dialogue due to the director’s dislike of long-windedness, these caused the movie to be widely regarded as hard to understand. Its use of classical Chinese language made things even worse for people with average Chinese language abilities (although I expect English subtitle will be free from this problem). Actually the main story is not difficult to understand at all, but there are important details about the characters and their relationship being missing or very non-obvious.
There is a really important tale told in the movie: A king owns a bluebird. It does not sing for three years. The queen suggests to put a mirror beside it so it can see its own kind and start singing. Seeing the mirror image, it dances to its death. Some reviewers believe this nature of being one of a kind and loneliness are applicable to many characters in the movie.
[SPOILER and Explanations]
As the movie revealed, this tale is firstly about the princess who needs to go to an unfamiliar place for political marriage. The nun is her twin sister and can be considered a mirror image.
The protagonist disobeys the nun, and she cannot really remain at home when the governor knows she is the assassin, there is no place for her and she has to leave. As a bluebird, she finally goes with the mirror guy. However, in the Japanese version of the movie, it is shown that the mirror guy already has a Japanese wife.
The wife of the governor spends time in front of the mirror for makeup but still cannot have the love of the governor. So she tries to kill the woman he loves, and wears a mask to fight the protagonist. The relationship chart above reveals that the old man is her master.
The reason the nun orders the protagonist to kill the provincial governor is that when the nun was still a child, the provincial military attacked the central government, and her sister and she were on the run. So the provincial powers are considered evil.
For more details, read this.