Is there a line where cinematic beauty can nullify a movie’s faults? How stunning does a movie have to look before you can still love it regardless of how awful it is? I ask because The Assassin, one of the most gorgeous movies I’ve seen this year, is a total snoozefest.
This movie isn’t just pretty in a passive way, either. It’s aggressively beautiful, calling attention to itself and its visual flourishes at all times. Director Hou Hsiao-Hsien fills the film with visual treats that will delight those who enjoy patting themselves on the back for watching high art. There is a big fancy-pants shift from black and white to color early on, for instance, and whole scenes go by with a thin, see-through curtain lazily flapping into frame between the camera and actors.
That lovely, flowing curtain actually ends up upstaging the characters, an issue that pretty well sums up The Assassin as a whole. The film has a plot, but it’s barely communicated in favor of stunning nature vistas and/or shots of characters staring off in the distance, trying to work up the courage to offer lines of dialog. An assassin (played by Journey to the West’s excellent Shu Qi) fails to kill a guy because his kid is present. As both a punishment and tactic to erase her sentimentality, her master sends her back home to kill her cousin. When she arrives, she finds her old stomping grounds in the grip of political strife.
Shu Qi wanders through the film like a ghost. It’s not quite a silent performance but comes pretty close. Every once in a while she gets to display her action chops, and while these scenes have garnered the film a lot of praise, they are far too rare and far too short. Before you can even register action happening onscreen, it ends. This is a shame both because the action really is well done and because it robs Shu Qi of any opportunity to display her substantial charm.
In other words, the novelty of seeing a well-known arthouse director take on martial arts (not only that, but this is supposed to be a wu-xia film) doesn’t really satisfy here. Imagine Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon but with the prestige drama dialed up to nine and the action dialed down to one. For some, this ratio might be just right. Others, however, will feel frustrated by The Assassin’s unwillingness to live up to its own supposed genre standards.