I don’t review movies, and I’m not even going to try to defend The Assassin as a film. It sits at one star on Netflix, which means that the vast majority of the few who have seen it must positively have hated it. The rank and file of the American public usually does detest anything that garners an award at the Cannes Film Festival, or is otherwise decked in artsy laurels. Sometimes I’m one of those people. For instance, I don’t see anything creative or inspired about placing a crucifix in a jar of urine. If that’s art… then flush it.
The avant garde‘s pseudo-intellects have brought this upon themselves. When they actually award a worthy creation, their verdict suffers from a bad case of Boy That Cried Wolf Syndrome. The sensitive, delicate people with rainbow colors mingled in their spiked hair and pondering over a Starbuck’s which gender pronoun and restroom to patronize today cheat themselves of a chance ever to be taken seriously by compromising their credibility in a thousand frivolous matters. The Assassin really is a work of art–even if it did win awards. I say this having given the film four stars out of five. I withheld the fifth because I could never fathom the motives behind the plot or, frankly, locate much of a plot. Some of my confusion–perhaps most of it–is likely a product of my cultural limitations: I’m sure things would have made more sense if I were Chinese.
Nevertheless, I’d be willing to bet that what bothered the great American audience the most wasn’t obscure motivation or buried transition, but rather the extraordinary degree of stillness and silence from one end to the other of this film. Productions like House of Flying Daggers and Red Cliff did very well on Netflix, despite being drenched in exotic oddities. Characters talked. Things happened. When Assassin offers intense combat scenes (and there are a few), they tend to melt into other scenes while the outcome is still in question. Far more typical are studies of brooding courtiers shot behind waving veils, panoramas of mountains or forests in the morning mist, and sequences of the conflicted assassin herself standing still as a slender statue or meandering meditatively through a field.
I found the result mesmeric. I confess that I came back to it over a period of days. Consuming twenty-minute or half-hour stretches was a welcome escape from the all-too-hectic pace of the holidays. And I watched alone, so that I wouldn’t have to listen to the complaining of family members. I still don’t really know what I saw: I just know that seeing it admitted me to a trance-like state.
The way Shu Qi’s character was able to absorb all the silence and stillness into her being, into her beautifully brooding face without hope that seemed to incarnate the landscape, fascinated me. Having studied and written about myths of journey to the Other World all of my professional life, I couldn’t help reading in her much of the shamanic outcast who is able to drift back and forth across the life/death interface. I might almost hazard that the movie sees the land of the living from the boundary of the dead, where voices have grown inaudible and deeds have lost all their haste and purpose.
Okay, maybe not in the running for your favorite Christmas movie. But hated it? Everyone who has watched The Assassin on Netflix has hated it? Can we not content ourselves with saying, “I’m just not in the mood for this right now,” or, “Something’s going on here that I just don’t understand.” How about two stars, at least? Do you have to hit the “terminate” button on everything that doesn’t offer explosive car wrecks to a heavy-metal soundtrack?
That’s what really nags at me: the one star. I’m reminded of the story about Bum Phillips after the Oilers won the Superbowl. He ordered champagne, was told that the bottle brought to him was twenty years old, and complained, “Hey, this is a celebration! Bring us the new stuff!”
I wish we had a gear for stillness and silence. It would come in handy for Christmas, especially.