Director: Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Runtime: 107 minutes
There's nothing quite like The Assassin in the filmography of Taiwanese veteran Hou Hsiao-Hsien, and hopefully there won't be any more. Yes, Hou's film (his first in seven years) ponderous and protracted tale is awe-inspiringly beautiful. But the director's attempt to create a refined wuxia tale is so painfully restrained that everything feels thoroughly vacuum-packed. Any given still frame from The Assassin is a visual masterwork, but god at what cost?
Set in 7th century China, The Assassin's opening title cards establishes a world of warring dynasties and fragile alliances. And it's in the Weibo province that we meet Yinniang (Shu Qi), a formidable assassin sent on a mission to kill the man to whom she was once betrothed. Throw in some palace intrigue surrounding the ex and his wife, and you've got a fairly canvas to work with. And I do mean canvas, because from the opening shots, Hou makes it clear that his images, above all else, will captivate.
But just as quickly as The Assassin announces its dedication to its imagery, it also gives away its dire lack of pacing. Hou has always been a practitioner of "slow cinema," and there's nothing wrong with that. However, as Hou defiantly refrains from melodrama, he overcorrects by a staggering margin. As beautiful as Hou's compositions are (and some are absolutely incredible), most are perilously in need of a heavy trim. 'Glacial' doesn't even begin to describe the pace, which mistakes long shots of minimal activity for atmosphere. The least Hou could have done for the audience would have been to get meta and include a scene of someone actually watching paint dry.
That would likely be preferable to the vacant performances Hou extracts from his cast. For all I know, these could be some of the best actors in the world, but you'd have no way of knowing based on how little the film actually explores them. The actors spend more time posing that crafting characters. This isn't exactly helpful, especially given the film's habit of turning the straight-forward story into a series of tenuously fragments. Did I grasp the story of The Assassin? Yes, even as I fought to stay alert. The more pressing question is, why didn't I care?
Because the great squawking albatross around The Assassin's neck is that, for all of its exquisite craftsmanship, it never delivers a real point for its existence. The themes are boilerplate, the aforementioned characters little more than sentient mannequins, and the grip on the atmosphere so limp that it all deflates within the first 20 minutes. It's appropriate that Hou repeatedly shoots scenes through layers of silk curtains: pull the fluttering fabric away, and you'll find nothing of substance on which to linger.