Written by guest contributor Cameron Gallagher
Martial Arts films can be that of elegance, beauty, and a cinematic experience unmatched… or they can be like The Assassin, dry, uneventful, and quite honestly boring. When I first received The Assassin I was undeniable excited considering this had won Best Director at Cannes along with being what looked like a spectacular Martial Arts “revenge” style film, but to my honest disappointment this was far from that. As I was watching the film with my wife, we both tried to convince ourselves “something better was coming” and “is this amazing or terrible?” This film had me on the edge of my seat, because my ADHD was begging for something to happen.
The Assassin follows the story of a woman Nie Yinniang, who is an assassin who kills corrupt government officials. After refusing to kill a man in front of his son, she is punished and is sent to kill a man she was once to marry… who is also her cousin.
The Assassin takes place during the Tang Dynasty in China, but at some times during the film I wasn’t sure it’s timing or place. It almost felt like it could be in some modern world out there.
I’m going to be honest, I was trying to like this film. I really was. I tried with every muscle I had to watch this and feel like I was watching an award winning film, but I couldn’t. Nothing felt right to me. Let’s talk about the cinematography. This film changed its aspect ratio several times for some effect. Now a lot of films have done this such as The Grand Budapest Hotel, or Interstellar, but for this film they felt unneeded and almost put there for the sake of changing cinematography. There was shot after shot of things that made no sense, and I’m someone who looks for symbolism within cinematography, but it just wasn’t there. Don’t get me wrong it was very appealing and wonderfully lit in most cases, but just wasn’t enough to excite me. The other thing that was quite annoying at times, is the camera would sit in a corner for a 10-minute dialogue scene. Now that would be entertaining if this was The Shinning, but considering some of these 10-minute scenes, sometimes not a single word was said.
This film is DEATHLY slow, and I saw The Revenant and Titanic. Being a long film isn’t the issue, it’s how you break it and pace the film. This film’s pacing was off by a lot. A Martial Arts film needs to find that balance between actual fighting and the “downtime” of moving sub-plots along, but The Assassin failed to hold that balance. There was about all of 4-5 fight scenes, and generally most were over within 30 seconds. I was incredibly disappointed in the lack of combat scenes, especially because when I saw the 30 seconds of fighting, it was AMAZING!
Now, I hate to sound like I’m hating on a film, but I tried SO HARD to like this movie. It felt like it had an incredible amount of potential, but was wasted on insanely long scenes with almost no dialogue that felt most times meaningless. I love long shots, long scenes, but when they are filled with emotion, and The Assassin failed to make me care for a single character.
The one thing I will say about this film that was downright awesome, was the production value. Set pieces to locations were absolutely amazing! This film felt authentic in its production design, even though at times it felt modern, I never questioned its authenticity.
Overall I was very disappointed in a good film that could have been spectacular, especially considering the hype for this film. Please, go check it out for yourself and tell me what you think!
The Assassin Director: Hou Hsiao-Hsien Writers: Hou Hsia-Hsien, Chu Tien-Wen, Hsieh Hai-Meng, Zhong Acheng Studio: Central Motion Pictures/WellGoUSA Running Time: 105 Minutes Release Date: 1/26/16