They say the world was slow before the Information Age,
When everything was hastened into busyness and rage.
Before the start of coal and steel and trains to move them round,
I guess that life was slower still and much less schedule-bound.
So think of how much slower life was centuries ago:
Compared with now, it might seem that the world was in slo-mo.
But once the novelty had worn, you’d want your time restored,
‘Cause when the world was slower, it was also very bored.
MPAA rating: Not Rated (should be PG-13)
I can’t remember the last movie I saw that was such a complete and excruciating waste of time. I had heard The Assassin was a slow but beautifully shot Chinese epic, but my gosh, I had no inkling as to how slow it would be. As I once described 2001: A Space Odyssey, this is the definition of artsy-fartsy: artsy because yes, there is cinematic skill on display, and fartsy because it stinks nonetheless.
The Assassin’s plot, such as it is, is about a woman named Yinniang trained from a young age as an assassin, whose mentor sends her to prove her ruthlessness by killing Yinniang’s own cousin, the military governor of an autonomous province. Even if I wanted to recount the rest of the story, I don’t know that I could because it was so inscrutable. There’s talk of backstabbing loyalists to the Emperor and someone’s wife getting pregnant and an assassination attempt other than Yinniang’s, and honestly I couldn’t keep track of the convoluted mess being barely explained in front of me. One bald guy seems to be pulling strings from the shadows but is never identified; even after some soldiers barged in and shot him with arrows, I still didn’t know who he was supposed to be.
On top of this narrative opacity, all the plot elements I mentioned belie the fact that very little actually happens. Seriously, this 105-minute film has less dialogue than a typical half-hour TV show, and it seems to drag out its story by padding every sentence with interminably long shots of characters staring gloomily ahead, with not enough context or effort to lend their expressions any meaningful emotion. This might be forgivable if the action scenes could make up for it, since this is supposed to be a wuxia film, but Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon this is not. The martial arts are oddly placed and very brief, often with jarringly abrupt endings. At one point, Yinniang walks through the woods, trades sword slashes with a briefly glimpsed masked woman, manages to cut off a piece of the mask, and they both walk away with no words spoken. Did the filmmakers not care how many questions scenes like that would bring up? Obviously not, since they never try to explain it.
I just want to point out that I am a very patient person. I can spend hours working on a jigsaw puzzle. I’ve watched uneventful potential snoozefests like Into Great Silence, Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart, The Wall, and Metropolis and typically tried to recognize the best in them. I greatly enjoyed and admired The Red Turtle, and that didn’t have any dialogue at all! But The Assassin was a complete and utter waste of my time, a film I only finished because of my personal policy to finish any movie I start, unless it’s outright offensive, which this wasn’t.
After preserving some hope for the first half hour, I spent the remainder just wishing it would end already. I wanted every scene toward the end to be the last because I knew it would try for some enigmatic conclusion I wouldn’t understand anyway so why did it matter where it stopped? If I had to pick something, I suppose I appreciated the cinematography, such as some of the landscapes and a carefully composed scene shot through a transparent curtain. But trust me when I say this film is not worth your time. I’ve included the trailer below because every scene of worth is in there; just watch that instead, disregard the critical praise, and do something more interesting with your 105 minutes, like maybe watching paint dry.
Best line: There were none!
Rank: (Very) Dishonorable Mention
© 2017 S.G. Liput
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