The Chinese auteur creates one of the most beautiful and richest films we have ever seen – for some this might be just enough.
Hοu Hsiao-hsien took 25 years of preparation and 5 years of shooting to make this film and there is no wonder about it once you see it. The story structure takes us all the way back to the 9th century, at the end of the Tang Dynasty, where the young Yinniang, a beautiful, silent girl, is trained as a killer, in order to exert her art, because this is what it is, only for righteous purposes, namely the extermination of political corruption. When one of her missions becomes to kill her cousin, with whom she was supposed to marry and is perhaps the only person she has ever loved, the mysterious killer will need to decide whether to stay faithful to her principles or surrender to emotion.
The history of “The Assassin” is not only classical and stereotypical, but is also articulated at such a slow pace, with so many faces, that quickly ceases to concern you. Instead, you are just enjoying the imagery. Dressing his film with sounds of nature, cicadas, crickets, the rustle of leaves in the air, taking his time to show the daily household routine of his heroes, Hou Hsiao-hsien gives life (although not rhythm) to the distant past.
Each scene is an image of inexhaustible detail, perfect balance and dreamlike beauty. The settings extend to the depth of the square, geometrically set academic frame, with layers over layers of gossamer silk and heavy brocade in warm, dimly lit and dazzling colors, with the most sophisticated, masterfully designed costumes, in a universe verging on the beauty of fantasy. When the camera goes outside, it records crimson sunsets, lush pastures, strange trees, all the shades of blue on quiet nights. The stage and costume design and its photography make movies like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” to pale before the “Assassin”.
The dialogues on the other hand are minimal, the characters leave the viewer to fill in the, familiar from the Chinese tradition, elements and most importantly, the action scenes, because this is a martial arts film, are abstract: Hou Hsiao-hsien goes through them like lightning, or looks at them from a distance, as he was more interested in the frame rather than the event. It is these elements that make the film tiring to watch: how many times can you marvel at the endless beauty of an image where nothing happens? The formalists may be thrilled, we on the other hand had to exercise our patience.