There is absolutely no denying that The Assassin is one of the most beautiful looking films ever made, for every frame of it qualifies as a masterwork of breathtaking photography. But there is also no refuting the fact that it is an insufferably boring film, for just being able to sit through this snail-paced arthouse feature is an achievement in itself.
Set in 8th century China during the Tang Dynasty, The Assassin follows Nie Yinniang; an exceptionally skilled assassin who was raised by a nun from the age of ten and kills on her command. But when she fails to perform her duties on one occasion, she is tasked with a ruthless mission that requires her to kill the man she was once betrothed to.
Directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien, The Assassin might give the impression of a martial arts flick but in actuality, it is more a period piece than anything else. Hou’s direction is impressive when it comes to staging the shots, choosing the locations and capturing every image in an aesthetic, artistic & intimate manner but as far as story goes, this is cinema on a standstill.
The plot relies on minimal dialogues and is visually narrated. And although there is nothing wrong with that method, the immensely slow pace at which its events unfold is going to infuriate many. Nothing happens in the movie for the most part as camera simply pans from one end to another and whatever little action does exist in between, it’s all very short-lived & scattered all over.
From the technical standpoint, The Assassin is virtually flawless. Throughout its runtime, the images retain its sharpness, clarity & piercing quality. Cinematography is truly a highlight, for every moment is expertly staged, beautifully shot & the colour composition is wonderful. The camera may appear static but it is almost always in motion, the lighting is ideal, and I’ve got nothing but praise for this particular aspect.
Even the costumes, make-up & production design exhibit a meticulous amount of research that went into the period it attempts to bring alive on the screen. Coming to the performances, the only one worthy of a mention is Shu Qi who plays the eponymous assassin in an incredibly calm, composed & balanced manner plus she manages to express her character’s inner turmoil really well while the rest of the cast simply shows up when asked to.
On an overall scale, The Assassin possibly deserves full marks for its mind-blowing cinematography alone but the stillness of its plot, lack of action, painfully lethargic pace & lifeless characters turn it into an excruciating viewing experience. While I’m sure that there’s an audience for this type of storytelling, I’m equally certain that I’m not one of them. All in all, it is difficult to not fall in love with its imagery but its sleep-inducing narration that goes on for eternity ultimately destroys it for me.