An assassin accepts a dangerous mission to kill a political leader in seventh-century China.
I have been eyeing this movie since I heard of it last year when there was a lot of buzz surrounding the film at the Cannes Film Festival. I was surprised it wasn’t nominated for Best Foreign Film this past award season given that the buzz it got in 2015 but nonetheless I was curious to check it out.
I have to say, having finished watching the film I find myself feeling rather underwhelmed. On the plus side, it’s a gorgeous-looking film, with lots of beautiful countryside scenery shots and lavish sets of Lord Tian Ji’an’s court: the outfits, the adornments of the rooms, the jewelry, the curtains. There’s a lot of slow takes, moving between characters in court, or shooting scenes behind curtains as the couple talk. The lingering shots focus on the characters, whether noble or peasant, in simple tasks such as getting ready for the day or taking care of the stock. The lingering shots also allowed the audience some time in just drinking in the scene, the architecture, the sets, nature. But on the other hand, the lingering shots often times stretched for too long, sometimes with activities or on characters that did not contribute to the plot.
Which brings me to the main reason for feeling so underwhelmed: the pacing of the story was too slow. I like minimalism in my movies, sometimes when I’m in the mood, but mainly if the scene conveys the information to me without the need for much dialogue. This was not the case with this movie: basic information about what was going on was not communicated early enough, or sometimes not at all, leaving the audience wondering what’s going on, who’s connected to who, etc. (I watched this movie with my parents so there were times when we had to stop, try to work out the information we got to understand what was happening in that scene). In a way, it made the initial synopsis of the movie completely misleading as there’s much more (and much less) going on in the story. Rather we–as well as Yinniang, the assassin–are caught up a little in Lord Tian’s court intrigues but again the motives are so absent from the dialogue that you’re left filling in the blanks in a not-so-fun way.
Also, the heavy pauses between characters drew out for much longer than it should’ve (a few seconds is okay, but the pauses were more than 10 seconds) and the steps/moments leading up to her decision concerning whether to kill Lord Tian Ji’an as per ordered seemed lost somewhere in the silence and sparce sprinkle of action. I mean, it was a process as we saw from Yinniang’s second assignment that she is not a mindless killer who just kills as ordered but is capable of showing reason and mercy, and returing home and seeing what she did just reinforces her decision, but again the journey to that decision felt muddled, lost in the scenery, that by the end of the movie and when the credits started popping up, I felt no catharsis, no sense of satisfaction.
So yeah, overall it’s a gorgeous film, the set design lavish, and the music quite on point (playing some tense notes when the situation called for it) but the minimalism was too minimalist. It was hard to appreciate the lyricism that the director and writer was trying to convey when I didn’t quite get a sense of Yinniang’s journey, especially after the Court intrigue started mingling in there and taking stage. I think you really have to be in the mood, and perhaps into, arthouse films with a lot of minimalism to enjoy this movie because otherwise you may find yourself frustrated by the pacing and the lack of explanation.