Notable Cast: Shu Qi, Chang Chen, Zhou Yun, Fang-Yi Sheu, Satoshi Tsumabuki, Ethan Juan, Hsieh Hsin-Ying, Ni Dahong, Yong Mei
The hype machine was in full force for The Assassin. It’s Tawain’s choice for consideration in the upcoming Academy Awards, it's directed by the renowned Hou Hsaio-Hsien, and it has already taken the award for best director at a little festival called Cannes. However, by the time the credits rolled on the film, I was a torn audience member. On one side, The Assassin accomplishes what it set out to do with gorgeous visuals and an atmospheric spin on a classic martial arts film foundation. On the other hand, it’s boring as hell and just as vague when it comes to actually telling a story. The arthouse cinema fan in me appreciated what the film accomplishes, but the kung fu fan in me was sorely disappointed.
Reading that synopsis, one would expect that The Assassin would become a staple of artsy martial arts films thrown up in the big leagues with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero, or Iron Monkey when it comes down to it. Not all things are what they would seem based on trailers and a synopsis and The Assassin is far more of a dramatic art house film than it is a martial arts flick. Make sure to keep that in mind before heading into the film.
This sort of dramatic tension focus allows Hou Hsaio-Hsien to do what he does best with visuals and tone for The Assassin. Every frame is picture perfect and could stand on its own as a piece of art balanced on realistic color schemes and impeccable lighting. The suffocating silence of the film allows the viewer to be sucked into many contemplative moments of small characters living in a very big world. The actors are allowed to sink into moments of subtlety. The vague plotting of the picture makes it a cinephile’s dream for interpretation and individualistic spin as the viewer must make a slew of assumptions to connect the dots. The Assassin is very much art house first and foremost. The rest of the elements be damned. This is not a Chang Cheh film. This isn’t even a Zhang Yimou film. Those are both too mainstream for this kind of cinema. The film student in me was hooked by just the technical wizardry of what was playing on screen and for that The Assassin deserves the praise it receives.
The intention of the film is masterfully crafted by Hou Hsaio-Hsien and company. As art house cinema, The Assassin is going to win over some of the most nit-picky of critics. This is very apparent by the accumulating awards that it is receiving even as I type this review. However, it has to be said that I also found the film to be utterly frustrating and often yawn inducing in its approach. Call me “uneducated,” call me “unrefined in my taste,” but The Assassin was boring as hell. If I am anything, I am a martial arts fan and quite frankly The Assassin is an art house film that took a perfectly fitting martial arts story and didn’t actually do anything with it. The plotting and narrative are so loosely hung on the themes and characters that the film has to distract the viewer with pretty visuals to keep them hooked and it plays all of its emotions with such subtlety that nothing in the film raised my pulse above borderline comatose. Leaving story or character choices up to viewer interpretation is one thing, but I found myself desperately wanting the story to actually run with something. Whether it’s the master and student tension, the running theme of children that makes our heroine such a terrible assassin, or even the oddly injected elements of black magic that arise, it needed something to ground its art house approach and it never did.
I also have to mention that The Assassin does fall prey to the one BIG SIN when making a martial arts film. The fight work has to be good. No, strike that. The fight work has to be great and The Assassin is so focused on continuing its tone and atmosphere that what few fights that show up seem disconnected emotionally from the rest of the (still vague) plot and characters. Some of the choreography is good, but it's mundane compared to what many of the other films in the genre are putting out. Truthfully, the final “battle” where our assassin heroine must confront her teacher should have been iconic martial arts material. Is the student truly better than the teacher? Yet I couldn’t have cared less about the outcome of that fight and the brevity of it only added to the disappointment.
Sure, The Assassin is going to earn its mega praise from the mainstream outlets with critics and it might even garner an Academy Award nomination, but keep in mind that this is a film that’s more or less under the guise of being a martial arts flick instead of actually being one. Still, the film earns a fair share of praise as it is immaculately crafted and it would seem that Hou Hsaio-Hsien accomplished what he set out to make. It doesn’t stop the film from disappointing the kung fu fan in me as it misses out on all the great elements that make the genre so entertaining and impactful. With the right expectations, The Assassin is going to gather its audience. For the readers of this site however, it's going to be a tough sell.
Written By Matt Reifschneider
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