“The Assassin” was mostly well received by critics, and Hsiao-Hsien Hou won Best Director at this years Cannes Film Festival for it. I also loved the short description in the Viennale festival guide, and the Trailer also made it look quite cool. Unfortunately, the movie that I ultimately got was pretty to look at – but not much else.
One of the more baffling choices that Hsiao-Hsien Hou made when shooting this movie are the changing aspect ratios. 99% of it is in 4:3, but then there are two very short sequences that show a woman playing an instrument, that are presented in 16:9. Also, the first couple of minutes are in black and white, while the rest is in color (and no, it’s not a flashback). If there was a point to these aspect ratio/color-changes, the director failed to put them across, at least as far as I’m concerned. I was also very disappointed by the action in this movie. I love a good kung fu- and/or wuxia-flick, but here, they usually stare at each other for two minutes, then they fight for five seconds, and it’s like, during this very short fight they already gathered who’s stronger/better, so they stop, and the inferior fighter simply departs, in a “I bow to your superiority” kind of way. That was just… weird, and ultimately also quite unsatisfactory. Especially since the movie makes us wait for these short outbursts of action for sooooo long. It’s like 15 minutes of talking, staring, contemplating, then five seconds of action, then another long stretch of silence and boredom, then another five seconds of fighting, and so on. Which wouldn’t have bothered me even half as much if the story would have been more engaging and/or the characters more interesting. “The Assassin” also isn’t helped by the fact that for a very long time, it appears to be very down-to-earth, before suddenly introducing a “Lost”- or “Game of Thrones”-like smoke monster that literally and figuratively comes out of nowhere. The only thing that makes this movie remotely worthwhile are the visuals, which are occasionally stunning. There’s one shot in particular, taking place on a mountain, near a ravine, with a waft of mist coming in, that was breathtaking, and definitely was one of the most beautiful shots that I’ve seen all year. The lavish sets and costumes also were beautiful to look at. And even though I didn’t really feel some sort of connection to her character, Qi Shu played her very quiet Assassin quite well. Other than that, however, “The Assassin” mostly was a trial of patience, and once again proved to me that with movies, as with people, good looks alone aren’t enough.