Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Review of The Assassin (2015)

Dahong Ni stares into space for several seconds.
I have reviewed the film The Assassin, directed by Hou Hsian-hsien, 2015, not because I particularly enjoyed it, but because I felt able to describe why I didn't. The review's below the break.

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.
I find the audio-visual scheme of the film and the nature of the performances very distancing. The film opens in black and white, for no apparent reason, for something of a prologue.

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.
The pattern of long, lingering sequences punctuated with non-sequitor bursts of action persists throughout the film. This makes for horrible pacing on both lesser and greater scales, and does nothing to aid the dearth of drama. There seems little to drive it in the first place, as neither the characters, the staging nor the camera seem to have sufficient motivation to head anywhere. Intellectually I know there is a story behind this inertia, even the sketch for an effective dramatic structure, which is saddening, if not maddening, given its execution.

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.
 The degree to which these incidents affect the ability to discern what it is the camera is even pointing at conveys more an impression of technical incompetence than it does artistic intent. I was also, from an early point, bothered by the sound design and it took me a little while to place why. The reason is that ambient sounds are frequently present all the time, which is quite unusual in the use of sound in cinematic storytelling. More usually a sound will be heard when its source is on screen, or else might be affecting the visible action or its context from off-screen. Atmospheric effects are often employed more subtly, and most effective when not we’re not consciously aware of them. For most of The Assassin, we can hear all the cicadas, the wind and so on, even when we’re inside. On several occasions there is a drumming in the background, which sounds diegetic but may be score, but in any case does not directly relate to what’s on screen. When we’re in the hut, the fire is crackling away front and centre, even when the human focus has moved to the back wall and the fire is no longer in view, as above. The effect is most like using the audio from a camera’s built-in mic - it’s just captured everything within range at one volume. Truly, there is a fog of sound enshrouding this film.

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.

1 comment:

  1. Is it wrong to be amused by how mean I was here? Having gone back for a second viewing of the film, I had a much better time and my accusations against the camerawork and sound design are blatantly wrong. I wonder if the cinema I was in did the film down? Watching it at home I found the photography and sound far more textural and compelling than I remember. The action sequences are definitely passable (though I'm really not a fan of the multiple jump cuts in the rooftop fight), and make a lot more sense in context of the scheme of the film, where they're an almost musical change of tempo. It is a film far more concerned with what is behind (and before) an act than the act itself, and that's fine. First time around, I was not receptive to what it was doing, this time more so, but I still came away frustrated by how obscure it is, and how it refuses to frame itself within dramatic conventions that would give me enough to care about it. It may be a problem to start with that I'm unfamiliar with the historical context of the story, but the fact that it *is* a real effort to make the text of the story intelligible (in the who's who and wants what and what happened to them when they disappeared off-screen stakes), doesn't make me want to dive into the subtext the film so prizes.