Most critics have agreed that The Assassin, Hsiao-Hsien Hou's take on an 8th century Tang Dynasty feudal dispute/kissing cousins romance, is both beautiful and enigmatic. And the critics and I are in wholehearted agreement on the former; The Assassin is a painting of feudal China come to life--scored with vibrant color and pastoral charm.
But the only enigma surrounding this film's existence, is how the filmmaker stayed awake long enough to make it. Scratch that. There's another big mystery. One that hits you about thirty minutes in, then sixty, then ninety...
And if you manage to get to the end of this hour and forty five minute slog through a history lesson, it's a mystery that will have you gritting your teeth just trying to figure out what the hell you just watched.
Who are any of these characters and what are they doing? Scenes begin and end with almost no context or connective tissue to other sections of the film and the plot is resolved when our protagonist, the assassin Yinniang, walks off into the sunset with two characters I simply could not recognize. In the middle of one baffling sequence, the camera cuts to a woman dressed like a Chinese superhero in the middle of a remote woodland area, stays with her for five or ten seconds and then moves on, without any sort of indication as to who she is or why she's important. When we catch up with this woman again, it's during a fight with Yinniang, a fight that occurs--you guessed it--without cause and without coincidence. As a matter of fact, the fight stops mid-knife slice and the two characters walk off in opposite directions.
The boredom and confusion wouldn't be so bad if the Hou devoted any time or effort to make the action sequences interesting or thrilling. Instead, they just come and go without rhyme or reason, most of the time not lasting more than a minute.
"Painting come to life" sounds nicer than it is now that I think about it. The Assassin is more like your grandfather's special set of limited edition stamps, depicting scenes from China thirteen hundred years ago, viewed from the inside of a very slow moving theme park graviton. Step off as soon as you can, the thing is never gonna spin faster.