CANNES, France (Reuters) - Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien said on Thursday he had not wanted to make the customary kickfest-style martial arts movie, and "Nie Yinniang" (The Assassin) shown in competition at Cannes is anything but.
It stars Taiwan-born Shu Qi in the title role as a trained killer during the Tang dynasty (7th to 10th centuries) who jumps on her prey from roofs or trees and kills them with a single blow of her dagger.
With the lightning instincts drilled into her by a nun who kidnapped her as a young girl and trained her in the martial arts, Shu's character, who is called "the Assassin", can deflect swords flung at her and lay low a squad of imperial soldiers.
A difference from the usual martial arts film, though, is that the combat and killing take place within a gorgeously photographed costume drama that transports the viewer back to a vanished time.
And the combat looks plausible, not fantasized, even if the idea of a woman killing so many soldiers sounds like a tale from the Tang dynasty literature from which it was taken.
"I've seen a lot of kung fu films and I particularly like Japanese samurai films because the combats are so realistic," Hou told a news conference.
"There are very few tricks in Japanese martial arts films, that's why I wanted to do my film in this way...
"It was very complex for the actresses in the combat scenes, while working on the film they ended up with a lot of cuts and bruises."Shu said Hou had put huge demands on her.
"I nearly broke down at one stage, I thought we might have a clash because it was so demanding," she said.
Hou said the film had been expensive to make by his standards, with a budget of $15 million, but even if it failed at the box office he would not want to start making films that were more mainstream or commercial.
"In this day and age, when Hollywood reigns supreme, compare that with the time of the New Wave (cinema), and there were very interesting, different films. We don't want the cinema to become poorer in the future," he said.
Trade publication Variety called the film "a mesmerizing slow burn of a martial-arts movie that ... achieves breathtaking new heights of compositional elegance".
Other top picks as the festival enters its closing days are American director Todd Haynes's lesbian romance film "Carol" starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes's harrowing look inside the Auschwitz death camp in "Saul Fia" (Son of Saul) and Italian director Nanni Moretti's "Mia Madre" (My Mother), inspired by his own mother's death.
Editing by Alison Williams