I am no expert on film, beyond my own personal appreciation of the art. I have no formal education on film or film theory, just my own exploration of the topic and evolution of thought on all that is put in front of me. This means that I am of the kind of film-watcher and reviewer who generally appreciates the actual over the abstract, the real over the surreal, the story over the symbolism. I like characters, I like plot and I like the intertwining between the two. I have gradually come to have a greater understanding and adoration of visual direction over the past few years, but this inherently vital part of the film-making process is still, for me, subordinate to the story being told and the characters that are being used to tell it.
Why do I begin this review with that paragraph? I feel like I must, in order to properly explain my soon to be presented thoughts on Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin, which I missed during its limited run in Irish theatres but has recently become available via streaming options. Hou was one of this myriad of directors that I was aware of in terms of his fame, but largely ignorant of in terms of his back catalogue, and so The Assassin was my introduction to a man who has been routinely described as one of the great directors of our time. Was it a film that would put me in the same category of those who adore Hou’s work, or would its effect on me be something remarkably different to the norm?
Based loosely on a core text of the wuxia genre, The Assassin tells the tale of Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), a killer directed by her master, Jiaxin (Fang-Yi Sheu) to terminate corrupt government officials in 9th century China. When Yinniang shows mercy to a target, she is next assigned a more difficult task, to test her resolve and commitment: the Assassination of Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen), a military governor of a border province, Yinniang’s cousin and former betrothed.
I like wuxia, to the extent that I have been exposed to it. I like eastern filmmaking, for the most part and to the extent that I have been exposed to it. But I didn’t like The Assassin, and I have been thinking about my own understanding of film generally in an effort to determine why. The Assassin seemed to get heap loads of praise from all quarters of the critical community upon its release, winning accolades at Cannes and being talked about in the same breath as other universally loved movies.
But then I watched the film, and even twenty minutes in I knew that I considered it a dud, and struggled through the remainder. Is the fault with me, lacking the education to fully comprehend a work like this, aimed perhaps more at the formally trained than the well-intentioned amateur critic? Perhaps, but this review cannot be done in the guise of a film school graduate. I can instead only be me, and talk about my honest reactions to The Assassin, the same as I would for any film.
And The Assassin is, for me, a remarkably tedious experience, from a director that I had expected more from, considering the kudos he has routinely gotten during his career. It is a film with a story and characters so threadbare they seem almost childish to me in terms of their representation and course, and the overall effect of their confluence is just indescribably dull.
There’s so little story here. Huo cuts corners with the script, which is extremely minimal, and stretches out what material he has with scenes and sequences that are so elongated that they approach a parody of pretentious arthouse films. Everything goes on too long in The Assassin: every scene lingers on the set in question, the wordless characters in the frame, the scenery in the background. Huo obviously wanted to create lots of ambience, and to bring his setting to life, and if absolutely nothing else, The Assassin does this with its locations.
But while this effort has created a very visually pleasant film – albeit not quite as ground-breaking or jaw-dropping as others seem to want to make it out to be, though watching it on a small screen may have had an impact on my assessment – it has come at the cost of the other, more vital elements in the creation of an exquisite film experience. You don’t have to choose between beautiful cinematography and substantial story: it’s perfectly possible to have both.
The Assassin has one of those things, as far as I can see, and the rest is a poorly edited and cobbled together mess of a narrative, where the distance between camera and principals is frequently mimicked by an emotional distance between viewer and character. It’s just so unclear what Huo wants to say with The Assassin, and it’s frustrating to get to the end credits with no clear idea of what I had witnessed.
Huo seems like a director so obsessed with the minute details of mise-en-scene, with being the kind of auteur that dazzles Cannes, that the end product in this case is a film that seems more like a series of set and filming location photography dressed up as a movie. “Moving pictures” would be a good description, stationary art photography that just happens to have non-stationary people in it. And for those seeking martial arts set-pieces, there are bare moments of swordplay and wirework, that come with little to announce them and pass just as quickly, as unimpressive as any I have seen recently, full of repeating motifs and direction, that merely serve to muddle things still further.
The actual story being told – what little there is – is uninspiring. Everyone, from Yinniang to Tian is one-dimensional with little chance to breath, change or evolve as things progress, their characterisation wrapped up in symbolic monologues and the bare eking out of plot progression. The cast can’t do all that much on their own terms to change that, with most caught in an unending portrayal of grim-faced and morbidly serious people, where displays of emotion are a rare sight, that pass as quickly as up-tempo moments. Awkward scenes come and go, where the director appears to be more concerned with the appropriately artistic movement of his characters than in what they are actually saying, as if Tian knocking something off his table in anger makes up for the fact that, after over 90 minutes, I could barely say I really understood anything about him, or care whether he lived or died.
We’re obviously supposed to feel something for the conflicted Yinniang, caught between her past life as some kind of quasi-princess – I think – and then apprentice assassin, but things are all so confusing: similar characters that aren’t properly defined, plot points that come out of nowhere and then aren’t properly explained (Why was Tian so angry with that advisor? Why were people being buried alive?) and what we have lost in the morass of some truly dreadful pacing.
For a man who apparently spent seven years on The Assassin, the director just doesn’t seem interested in anything other than his cinematography. Maybe Huo just expects the audience to get it, or to not care at all about such basic concerns as plot, story, narrative, etc. Where some see genius, I see carelessness. Even the actual dialogue that does exist occurs in clipped, whispered tones, frequently overshadowed by the background noise of scenes or the mundane repeating drums that I’m sure signify something, though if it was for the purposes of creating tension it certainly didn’t work for me.
While researching around on this film, I found the following quote from another review, that I feel is quite apt for my own feelings: “I gather there is something to this film that I lack the patience to appreciate in its storytelling, but I cannot for the life of me meditate on the occurrences like the film seems like it wants me to.” That’s a very good summation of The Assassin’s problems. It is a film that made me feel bored, then inadequate in my understanding of film, and then irritated that such an apparent gem of a movie, if the critical community is to be trusted, must apparently be enjoyed with a doctorate or not at all.
I really wanted to like this film. I wanted it to be another transcending experience like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. But The Assassin has none of the wonder and grace that the dominant wuxia in western understanding has, and in making it Huo has none of the understanding of story and action, and the balance between the two, that Ang Lee had. Much to my own astonishment, it is a film closer to the execrable sequel, Sword Of Destiny: both films I entered into with high hopes, and both times I was left disappointed. If the price of my lack of formal film education is that I do not have the wherewithal to appreciate something like The Assassin, then it is something I am not too upset to pay. There are better films out there, wuxia or no, to capture both my interest and yours. Not recommended.
(All images are copyright of StudioCanal).