When at least ten people walk out of a movie, it can either mean the film is insulting or just plain boring. For this latest work by Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien, it’s the latter. Hou’s first film in seven years, The Assassin is set in the 9th century during the Tang Dynasty period in Chinese history. Taiwanese actress Shu Qi plays said assassin Nie Yinniang.
To clarify, my personal preference for films is pretty simple: there has to be something going on. There’s got to be some dialogue or action, or at the bare minimum, some story to follow. Otherwise I’d doze off when there isn’t anything to think about. Surprisingly, I survived to tell this tale. Having won the “Best Director” accolade at the Cannes Film Festival in May this year, The Assassin was naturally on my slate of films to watch, especially since it’s labelled as a martial arts flick.
Touted as a “wuxia” (martial arts) film, The Assassin is anything but energetic. A good half of the film could have been sped up, or even removed. Even as the leading lady, Qi’s dialogue is sparse, and she displays little emotion in her performance. Simply put, Yinniang is instructed to assassinate some people. While she executes the first target without hesitation, she pauses at subsequent targets when she sees them with infants.
Hou is best known for lingering camera shots and minimalist dramas in his films. Combine that with something along the lines of an action-packed plot, and what you might get is a mishmash of genres that can potentially result in a laughable film. Where there is action, the sequences are few and far between. In some cases, they even make little or no sense.
On the upside, The Assassin is laden with intricately meticulous set pieces – period costumes make for very picturesque landscape views. The accurate art direction easily transports one back to the era of traditional Imperial Courts. To say the shots are beautiful would be an understatement, but it still does not escape the film’s lack of a proper narrative structure.
Hou utilises black-and-white imagery in certain shots, for a reason only he would know. The film also contains the aspect ratios 16:9 (widescreen) and 4:3 (square), the latter being the common format for films during the pre-TV era. Furthermore, while some shots are static with character movement, some shots have both its subject and camera come to a standstill, to the extent that the only indication of movement was a bird in the background that was still flying.
Needless to say, anyone looking for epic sword fights should stay away from this. If you still want to give The Assassin a chance, I welcome you to proceed. Though you have been warned. On the other hand, fans of artistic films will certainly rejoice at the return of famed Taiwanese auteur Hou and embrace this wholeheartedly.
The Assassin opens in theatres today.
Directed by: Hou Hsiao-hsien
Genre: Action, Drama
Running time: 107 minutes