I adore Eastern Cinema. Japanese horror, Korean action, Wuxia, Magical Realism, I love them all. OK, I'm not a huge fan of "wire-fu", but for the most part eastern cinema is a visual feast that I love to gorge on. Exquisite costuming and hardcore female protagonists thrill me – whether it's science fiction or a historical drama, it rocks my world. So I was all set to be wow'ed by Taiwanese Auteur Director, Hsiao- Hsien Hou's latest work, The Assassin; The true story of Nie Yunniang, a female assassin that lived during the decline of the Tang Dynasty in 9th Century China (are you listening Ubisoft?).
Nie Yinniang, played by Qi Shu (The Transporter) was betrothed to marry her cousin, Tian Ji'an, played by Chen Chang (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) she was given to a Taoist Nun when she was ten because, "reasons". Since then, she has spent the rest of her life learning from the Nun how to become an assassin. When Yinniang fails to kill her target, the Nun believes she needs to toughen up and sends Yinniang to her to her childhood province to kill the man she was betrothed to 13 years ago.
Hou has dreamed of making a wuxia film since he was in High School, and now that he's 68 his childhood dream has finally come true. The Assassin is obviously a labour of love for Hou, but it is a Herculean labour to watch this film through to the end.
I love that Hou used minimal wire-work so that the grace characters display as they leap into action is presented as effortless ability rather than the obviously fake hovering through the air that dominates many wuxia and magical realism films. But sadly, that's one of the only good thing I can say about the film.
The Assassin has received a lot of rave reviews from critics that talk about the reverie of seeing landscapes and characters that strike static poses like they're characters in a painting, and these reviews have in turn been criticized by the public for being a case of "the Emperor's New Clothes". Hou's directing style is to storyboard his film first and to then make his script fit the locations where he wants to shoot. In theory, this should give a story that is grounded in the "show don't tell" philosophy of filmmaking, but instead it has resulted in a film where landscapes more important than the story and what little story there is feels weak and underdeveloped. Perhaps the Cannes Jury wanted to reward Directors that take new approaches to filmmaking, but what I saw was a film with a weak premise that was dominated with; shots that were poorly lit, shots that were out of focus, shots with glacial pans for no foreseeable reason, followed by a cut to another angle (just to prove to us that the pan was indeed pointless), shots with background noises that stood out more than they should have, and fight scenes with jarring sound effects to tell us when a decisive strike was made because otherwise there would be no way to tell why people were suddenly no longer fighting each other.
I'm not sure why Hou thought that I had to look at a balcony while a guard walked on, walked off, then came back and then walked off again. There was a pretty roof in the background, but seriously, 45 seconds to show all that, with no clue as to what he was doing or looking at seems disrespectful of the audience's time rather than masterful directing.
I walked out of the cinema feeling like I'd watched a four-hour film, only to be told by the rest of the world that only two hours had gone by. Is Hou a Time Lord? Did I just have a Time And Relative Dimension In Space experience and not realise it?
I started to wonder if I was unfairly placing my western film literacy standards on an eastern film, but then I thought about the countless examples of Asian films that are beautifully lit, framed and in perfect focus.
500,000' of 35mm film that was used to shoot the Assassin, which bloated the budget to $15M USD – and not all of this has been made back in box office sales. The Assassin has had record number of walk outs during screenings in China – which was a hard sell to begin with given the animosity between Taiwan and Mainland China. However, The Assassin's opening at the Toronto Film Festival also resulted in walk outs (in Canada, a country renounced for having the most polite people in the world). It's pretty telling when a film's total Box Office takings from screenings in North America was reportedly little over $390,000 USD gross. To put this in perspective, The Big Lebowski also had a budget of $15M and it is considered to be a Box Office Flop for only bringing in $5.5M in its opening night.
I didn't see the trailer until after I had seen the film, and now that I have I can't help but feel that maybe the trailer contributed to the large number of walk outs the film experienced; if people were expecting a wuxia film called The Assassin to feature a heroic story that is packed with action as featured in the trailer, then it's no wonder that they were disappointed because that is not what the Assassin is.
If you're familiar with Hou's previous works than you may appreciate The Assassin. I wanted to like it, but my unreasonable western desire to see a film that is in focus means that the Assassin really wasn't my thing. Buyer beware.
This review was published by The Northsider: http://thenorthsider.com.au/film- review-the-assassin/
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