|Dahong Ni stares into space for several seconds.|
The Assassin appears to have garnered a lot of praise; I can’t see why.
This trailer offers a good illustration of some of the points I raise below, as well as suggesting a more compelling and satisfying narrative than the whole delivers.
|Qi Shu as Yinniang - the Assassin - with her nun instructor Jiaxin, Fang-yi Sheu|
This first short segment effectively sets up the martial formidability of the title character, a backdrop of political machination, and ultimately, the assassin’s qualms about killing. These will play out through the rest of the film, but I didn’t really care. The prologue is probably the most direct and effective section of storytelling in the film. While it sows the seeds of techniques I found alienating and occasionally laughably bad later on, it doesn’t approach their worst excesses.
The opening two minutes of the film, for context, courtesy of Studio Canal UK.For dominant technique, we get long takes which frequently enough put compositional emphasis on something the viewer can’t see clearly, also drawing attention to themselves by universally lethargic camera movements. Some of these moves are motivated and some are not, at their most absurd drifting gently in a direction that is changing the emphasis of the shot without any change in context, as if the operator forgot to lock it off. Even when some on-screen action, and I use the term lightly as this is by its very intention a film about inaction, motivates the camera in a particular direction, it is at the same dull pace, utterly killing, say, any sense of urgency an actor is trying to convey. This is excepting the “action” sequences, of course, which seem to put the opposite into practice with equally disastrous effect.
The performances are generally very still, expression and gesture are minimal. I wouldn’t say any character is sufficiently brought to life either by performance or presentation to warrant emotional investment. Each wears their exterior like a carapace. There are several long expositionary scenes, which all performers seem to have been encouraged to draw out as long, with as little vigour and change of intonation, as possible. I found it hard to concentrate on these and log all the necessary names, places and personal histories to really make sense of what was going on, for which I may well be solely at fault, but I was dead bored.
When the film decides to jump into action, and more than once it does this with an abrupt cut from an interchange of lingering shots of characters not conclusively established to have a spatial relationship, the mode changes entirely. It seems to want to use conventional martial arts action beats to some extent, but either can’t decide the extent or doesn’t have the ability to realise them. On the whole there is poor continuity of space and movement throughout the shooting and editing of these sequences, although the overall action is discernible. One early rooftop fight sticks in my mind as particularly out of sorts. It includes the convention of superhuman leaping that exists in wuxia, but doesn’t use it for anything other than getting the combatants discretely on and off the roof. The fight itself is largely lacking spatial context, as there is no real maintenance of screen direction, is almost exclusively captured in medium shot, and the edits frequently miss changes of momentum in the combat. I swear there was even a jump cut within what would have been a continuous take of one lunge.
This behind-the-scenes video from Well Go USA gives a flavour of the action sequences in the film. I find the B-roll footage of the fight in the birch forest better edited and more compelling than that which made the film.
In fact, obfuscation may or may not be an intentional theme. I felt I spent an obscenely long time not only listening to an uninteresting tract of exposition, but squinting at the actors perpetrating it through a gauze continually wavering in opacity. Another scene takes place in a hut, with an open fire, and blue smoke largely conceals the exchange between two actors.
Well Go USA Entertainment have been kind enough to upload this clip so you can vicariously experience visual impairment yourself
|Qi Shu, Dahong Ni and (offscreen) a fire.|
I will mention the film’s late lurch into the supernatural only to state that it is there, and sits as oddly and separately as the martial arts interludes. A clip of the one supernatural event is available here if you're interested.
My favourite shot of the whole thing, for all the wrong reasons, is a contemplation of some sitting goats. We look at these goats for several seconds…we pan to goats up a bit and to the right, then we have to tilt drastically, badly racking focus to make sure we look at a few more goats, sitting there chewing grass…before drifting off diagonally left to see the final two goats, one of them smaller and darker than the rest and nibbling at a longer bit of grass. The film then, reluctantly, cuts to some humans. This, I might add, is at the emotional and narrative climax of the film, and bugger me, but I really hope it is a joke.
There are so many decisions in the execution of this film that are, beyond even a self-conscious attempt at “style”, bad communication, I can only hope its makers and admirers have mistaken one for the other.