This is not an action film, so if you’re coming to it expecting a ton of exciting fights, look elsewhere. There are a few wonderful bits of choreography, but that isn’t the point of this rather quiet and intense political suspense film of ancient times (9th century China).
This is that rare film you watch where you can see the director’s hand completely and yet can forgive it. Director Hou has earned the right to try such things, but that doesn’t mean it made the film better (though it probably doubled its length). The tension of how long he holds shots forcing you to linger in a moment is almost painful at times in a world where we have internal sensibilities about when a shot is complete and should cut away.
I will say that it is beautifully filmed and well acted. It also has one of the richest soundscapes I have ever experienced in a film. It is utterly immersive and thick with layers, bringing both senses and emotions to the surface as you listen.
There are many recognizable faces, if you watch Chinese cinema. Qi Shu (Journey to the West) is among the most recognizable as she’s crossed over into Western cinema several times. Whether she is the “assassin” in the title is something that becomes an interesting question in retrospect. The rest of the cast is equally strong, though no one, Shu included really stood out over anyone else. While there are a lot of quiet emotions going on under everything, the surface is very controlled and taut.
Unfortunately, the reasons for the tension is very obscure without a clear understanding of the politics and history. The story requires crib notes for anyone who isn’t a Chinese scholar. Really. Here is the one I had to look up just to be sure I got most of the film at the end. Given this significant challenge to appreciation, I can’t really recommend the film for everyone… and I’m not even sure I was glad I spent the time, though it kept my attention throughout… as often because I was trying to figure it out as because the moments themselves were intriguing. You should decide your own tolerance and knowledge before checking this one out.