The Assassin: NZFF Review
An exercise in patience, albeit a not entirely successful one, The Assassin, from director Hou Hsiao-hsien, is likely to polarise audiences.
Set in 7th Century China at the decline of the Tang dynasty, it's the story of Yinniang (Shu Qi) a general's daughter who was taken away by a nun when young and who returns to carry out an assassination mission that could have far-reaching consequences for the political future of the Weibo region.-
The fact that it takes 1 hour 20 minutes before the lead actually speaks gives you an insight into the slow, ponderous pace of The Assassin. It's a film that favours visual aesthetics over any kind of semblance of plot and long-sweeping character development. In fact, one story line involving a pregnancy of a character and her faking to avoid detection is thrown in with such weight that it's clearly important to the film's arc but is introduced so randomly and executed so poorly that it fails to provide any narrative heft whatsoever.
An impassive, emotionless lead of Yinniang doesn't help matters either; if you're expecting a film chock full of fight sequences that are long and extended, you'll also be disappointed in what transpires. Short bursts of fight scenes happen but with little or no consequence; in fact, director Hou Hsiao-hsien has left it for you to do the work, to engage with the film and provide the emotional heft that's needed - and unfortunately, that's not always a trade-off that works to his advantage I'm afraid to say, as not once did I care about anyone involved in this.
The Assassin though succeeds in its visuals; perhaps, a little too much so. Conversations are snatched from a distance and shot with veils floating in front of the camera, as if we are spying in on them like Yinniang; a couple of sequences flit by until you realise that she is lurking in the background as well. It's masterful, if not involving, stuff.
But ultimately The Assassin feels muddled; its slow languid, almost stultifying pace is crippling and its narrative and back-story is lacking; whether it's the subtitles that didn't convey everything they needed to or the script was muddled at an earlier stage, this Assassin is a killer of a film - but for all the wrong reasons.