During 8th century China, the Tang Dynasty loses its power. Over the following 100 years, the Weibo province manages to overtake the influence of the Emperor and his Imperial Court to become the strongest in the land – a land plagued by political corruption and turmoil. From this unrest rises an assassin, Nie Yinniang (Qi Shu), who blindly obeys the orders of her master, a nun-princess – until Nie’s sentimental thoughts about China and its leaders get in the way. When Nie fails to execute the governor, who has a young son in his arms at the time of the kill, she’s instead assigned to dispatch her own cousin, Lord Tian Ji’an (Chen Chang).
As the various lords and provosts and commanders of Weibo reiterate, Yinniang is back. And she’ll stop at nothing to fulfill her obligation. Or will she? Being independent and increasingly more conservative with her unmatched skills, she investigates Ji’an’s activities and toys with him to ensure that he knows who has come for him. Along the way, subplots involving a secret pregnancy, ploys to disrupt faction dominance, and a black magic practitioner stretch out the running time but do little for the complexity (though it does effect the lucidity) of the premise. It frequently feels as if nothing much is happening.
Black and white photography at the start seems to denote an ancient time period, but the cinematography and style are generally too crisp and modern to feel authentic. Fortunately, the picture quickly turns to color, where majestic sets and vivid costumes can more adequately invigorate the setting and characters. The scenery is certainly at the forefront of the film’s artistry, as if each shot is a painstakingly planned painting brought to life. But even the visuals can’t enliven the blandness of the plot, which features such agonizing dormancy that viewers might as well be gazing upon still photography.
Everything about “The Assassin” is approached with great caution, as if it’s unable to commit to any particular course of action. It doesn’t appear concerned with getting to the point or even telling a story. After every exchange of dialogue or philosophical comment to no one in particular, a lengthy moment of silence occurs, allowing the camera to linger on faces, expressions, backgrounds, or general inactivity. And this is usually preceded by chirping birds or crickets and followed by a slow fade.
There are eventually a few scenes of combat (employing the conventional wirework and swordplay), but they’re brief and unfocused; clearly, “The Assassin” is not intent on filling the shoes of a typical kung fu/wuxia movie. The music also regularly anticipates some great ambush or flicker of bloodshed, but surprises are nonexistent. The camera guarantees that attacks are heralded by what feels like minutes of characters idling in a dark corner, waiting patiently to pounce – and then typically retreating without a fight. Just when a few sequences hint at something engaging, the scene cuts away, as if director Hsiao-Hsien Hou is intentionally keeping awe-inspiring imagery concealed from audiences. Crawling along at a snail’s pace, it doesn’t even matter that the ending is unnaturally cryptic and inexplicably comforting; “The Assassin” will have lost most of its viewers somewhere in the first act.