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Chinese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien applies a painterly eye to "The Assassin," a moody and evocative take on the martial-arts genre.

In the eighth century, during the Tang dynasty, beautiful assassin Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi) fails to kill a corrupt governor, so her mistress, the nun-princess Jiaxin (Sheu Fang-yi), sends her back to her hometown. Her mission is to murder Tian Ji'an (Chang Chen), the governor there — and the man to whom Yinniang was betrothed before her exile 13 years earlier.

Hou ("Flight of the Red Balloon"), who won the Best Director honor at this year's Cannes Film Festival, creates images of shattering beauty to capture Yinniang's struggle between love and duty.

Hou's languid pacing, as he moves from convoluted political arguments to flashes of martial-arts brilliance, is in keeping with the director's other films, but will likely feel like a bore to anyone expecting a barrage of kung-fu action.

'The Assassin'

Opens Friday, Oct. 30, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas; not rated, but probably PG-13 for violence; in Mandarin with subtitles; 107 minutes.