Despite being about an actual assassin, “The Assassin” nearly put me to sleep. The film is based on a classical Chinese text from the 9th century titled “Nie Yianning”, a notable entry of Chinese fiction’s famed ancient martial artists, and is rendered beautifully with stunning cinematography and gripping premise. Yet its pace leaves a lot to be desired.
The film stars Shu Qi (“Journey to the West”) as the titular assassin Nie Yinniang, who has been trained for years and has become a superb killer sent to murder corrupt government officials. Qi is badass and kind of terrifying in her unwavering resolve as the assassin, appearing just enough in action to illustrate her skills without getting too attached to believe she is a sympathetic character. Yinniang reaches her limit, however, when the next target she is sent to kill is the nun who raised her. She does not complete the task, and as punishment is sent to kill the governor of the far Weibo province, Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”). The plot development of the movie, while slow, still manages to establish the premise within the first 30 minutes, which kept my expectations high at the start. The catch? Tian Ji’an is her cousin who she had been arranged to marry. Drama of the stickiest order ensues as Nie Yinniang takes up her next mission.
I can’t stress enough what a feast for the eyes “The Assassin” is. The cinematography of the Chinese landscapes are absolutely beautiful and breathtaking. The lighting is exquisite as well, making the gold of the rich main characters shine in a way that adds to the luxurious sets and costumes. The shots of the uninhabited mountains transports the viewer back in time, another stunning element paid careful attention to in order to bring to life this historical drama. Some of the visuals foreshadow the plot as well, like when a blood-red sky at sunset is reflected in a lake, contributing to the mise-en-scène as well.
Unfortunately, the editing does not allow the screenplay to breath, making you feel every minute that passes by while watching this movie. There is far too much exposition, especially at the beginning where the assassin is given her orders to kill, only to then attempt to kill the following shot. Instead of feeling like a detailed chronicle of the assassin’s life, it often feels terribly redundant. Additionally, the shots themselves are way too long. Despite being a martial arts movie, the movie seems more preoccupied with the mundane aspects of daily life than the fighting itself. You literally watch people sit, eat and sleep while stuck with the same forlorn expression for the entire time, making you wait for any plot development (of which there is too little). This adds gravity to the characters, but in an unoriginal way as if they were all in a Western playing mysterious sheriffs who blew into town to restore law and order. To be sure, the editing wasn’t all bad. There was an effective switching from black and white to color in order differentiate the past in flashbacks from the present. But this does nothing to quicken the pace, making important developments feel understated and inconsequential, like when Governor Tian’s interesting origin story is delivered through a boring monologue.
Overall, “The Assassin” is a solid piece of film that feels more like a recorded play than a movie. There is a limited number of sets that the camera stays stationary on the majority of the time as monologues and exposition are dished out like nobody’s business. If you love historical pieces, this will surely delight. But damn, is it boring.