The Assassin has established itself as a bit of a critical darling. Sight & Sound went as far as naming it their film of 2015, which was a strange move for a British magazine since it had its commercial release this year in the UK. Yet that confidence boost obviously didn’t satisfy the marketing department as they made the decision to advertise it to UK audiences as a wuxia film while in reality it only bears slight resemblances to that genre. It is a combination that leaves you wondering whether this is going to be yet another example of a film beloved by critics, but not the general public.
That feeling wasn’t sated by the fact that I didn’t have a bloody clue what happened for large parts of this film. Set in the Chinese province of Weibo, it follows Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi) on her mission to assassinate their militaristic leader Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen), a man she was previously betrothed to. That was all fine, but the daily runnings of Ji’an’s court (which we are introduced to) were a mystery to me. Plot points and characters were dropped in with little to no introduction and I was regularly sat trying to figure out exactly what was going on.
Which was okay at points, because while this film may be incomprehensible it is most definitely beautiful. The camera work is simple and, at times, it more resembles a series of pictures rather than a moving film. Director Hou Hsiao-Hsien is unafraid to linger on a shot and it gives you the sense that you are looking at a beautiful painting. However, it doesn’t stop there being a coldness to proceedings. The film may look beautiful, but it never invites you in. You are always watching from a distance, through veils or across lakes.
When the action does come it is as breathtaking as you would expect and features all the wire work that is a staple of that genre. But even that is not presented simply, the biggest battle in the film is viewed from a distance, the action impossible to make out apart from the fact that it is happening.
I honestly don’t know what I think of The Assassin. It is a beautiful film but one that I feel no love for. I respect it but do not care for it. I left the cinema feeling stupid, unable to comprehend exactly what I had watched. I can see why people have embraced this film, but I am struggling to be one of them. Maybe you will join the critics who love it, but it is safe to say it is unlikely to be for everyone.