The Assassin at last. What a masterpiece. Mind you, it's not your run-of-the-mill wǔxiá piàn, with members of rival martial arts schools challenging each other, or with acrobatic fights in bamboo groves.
No. First of all, the film is set under the late Táng, and director Hou Hsiao-Hsien [Hóu Xiàoxián 侯孝賢] secured the assistance of a Taiwanese historian who specialises in the Táng Dynasty to make sure the court manners, musical instruments, dances, foodstuffs, etc. were historically accurate. As a result, the film is visually stunning in its faithful representation of court life and costumes. Many scenes have been photographed in natural light or in candlelight, and you can see the beautiful patterns of the silk clothes and the gauze curtains.
Secondly, many protagonists are female. Women under the Táng enjoyed much more freedom than under later dynasties (see The Celestial Empire, p9), and the film is basically a tale of women plotting against each other against a backdrop of seemingly masculine authority.
I won't spoil the scenario, but the film does depart from the short story. Niè Yǐnniáng returns from her training with the nun as a full adult, not as an adolescent as in the short story. The nun does not disappear; on the contrary, she tells her to kill her cousin Tián Jì'ān, the de facto independent ruler of Wèibó. Niè Fēng is Tián's provost. The various wives and concubines of Tián Jì'ān plot against each other. Instead of killing Tián, Yǐnniáng starts taking part in the various conspiracies, thwarting assassination attempts and protecting her father. I won't spoil the outcome of the film, but I believe it is about Yǐnniáng's finding her own destiny after years of being subservient to others.
Oh, and there is the best depiction ever of a magic-user and of his spells in a semi-historical film. Yes, a magic-user could definitely do with more hit points...