A Gorgeous Muddle
Visually, The Assassin is one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen. Most movies have four, maybe five photogenic shots that, if extracted from the film, wouldn’t look out of place in an art gallery. A small handful of motion “pictures” live up to their name by accruing praise like “painterly” or “pictorial” for delivering a sizable quantity of images that you would frame and hang on your living room wall if you could. The Assassin is made entirely of these images. Virtually if not literally every shot has been arranged and photographed to perfection.
Directed by the venerated Hou Hsiao-Hsien, the historically minded artist behind The City of Sadness and, more recently, the epoch-spanning romance Three Times, The Assassin is a textbook on mise-en-scène, a film whose images are so exquisitely composed that you’re almost afraid to speak about them, for fear of breaking their spell. In Hou’s picture, the nature photography rivals that of Andrei Tarkovsky’s films. One breathless moment in which two killers dance around each other within a forest of white bark evokes the famous scene from Ivan’s Childhood where an unwanted romantic advance is rendered dream-like because it is set in an alien landscape of tree trunks bleached by winter. The Assassin, too, has the quality of a dream. The way the film tells a straightforward story but is separated into segments that literally fade in and out like barely recalled memories; the way the colors seem more intense than reality can produce; the way the opening is in stunning monochrome, touched with slow-motion effects—all lend the film the strangely dissociative, hyper-vivid feel of a 100-minute-long reverie. You don’t watch The Assassin. You drift through it, as if in a trance.
Unfortunately, this dream conceit doesn’t entirely pardon the messiness of the film’s plot, which becomes noticeable despite the film’s intoxicating accomplishments as a work of visual art. At its most basic, The Assassin centers on Yinniang (Shu Qi), the titular killer who is tasked by her aunt/master to kill Yinniang’s cousin and erstwhile betrothed, Tian Ji’an (Chen Cheng) as a way of learning to detach herself from emotions that may compromise her otherwise immaculate technique. Up until this point, the plot makes sense, possessing a spare poetry in how it evokes the simple, deeply resonant archetype of the cold-blooded killer whose dormant humanity is stirred into surfacing.
From here, however, the film begins to lose focus because it tries to be two different movies at once. In one respect, The Assassin is a study in stillness, an anti-action movie that withholds violence where other wuxia pictures send their heroines on balletic, gravity-defying rampages. The characters often sit and move with minimal dialogue, allowing the images to speak for themselves. The problem is, surrounding the silent, existential brooding are political intrigue and character backstories too complex to be effectively explained through wordless gestures—Tian, in addition to being the cause of Yinniang’s emotional confusion, is also the leader of Weibo, a powerful garrison town challenging the reign of the Tang emperor. The plot thickens considerably when war begins to loom, spineless ministers incur Tian’s wrath, and Yinniang’s past becomes a major point of discussion among her relatives at the Weibo court (her secret assignment requires her to play the part of a daughter returning home).
In trying to juggle precious quietude and dense plotting, The Assassin often delivers scenes where characters speak too little and others in which they say too much. There are moments in which the lack of dialogue is clearly a self-imposed crutch, a kind of artsy restraint that detracts from the realism and narrative efficiency of the storytelling. Other stretches of the film seem designed to compensate for the reticence of earlier scenes by having characters spout expository information for the viewer’s benefit. This narrative give-and-take makes The Assassin feel uneven and even a little slipshod, despite the film’s meticulous formal construction.
That said, it is ultimately the latter that lingers. Long after the credits have faded, the film’s vistas remained visible to my mind’s eye even as the story, on account of its lack of substance, all but vanished. So vivid were the images that I still saw cloud-cloaked mountains, lakes at sunset, grasslands and marshes and flowing robes. The Assassin falls short of narrative greatness, but I almost didn’t care because I had these once-in-a-lifetime images etched into my mind, keeping me in a state of profound gratitude.