Even under the best of circumstances, martial arts period pieces can be sink-or-swim affairs for American audiences. Getting deep into arcane history is a part of the wuxia genre, and whether or not the viewer is up to speed with the intrigue among ancient Chinese dynasties is not the film's problem. Few films in recent memory have cared less about the audience following along than Hou Hsiao-Hsien'sThe Assassin, which won Best Director this year at Cannes. It's a beautifully directed film, no question, but also a glacially paced one, with performances that often give the impression that the cast chugged Robitussin before the cameras rolled. On the surface, the plot is simple enough: Over a decade after being kidnapped by a nun (Sheu Fang-Yi)and trained to be an assassin, 23 year-oldNieYinniang (Shu Qi) returns to her family's estate under orders to kill her former fiancé (Chang Chen). But Hsiao-Hsienis less concerned with action than with gorgeous production design and vast amounts of 78rpm-played-at-33 dialogue. Although the texture is very different, his picture brings to mind another self-consciously slow-paced film which promised action but instead delivered meditation: Nicolas Winding Refn'sOnly God Forgives.The Assassinprobably won't wind up on as many Worst-Of lists, though.