Spoilers might go a capella for this one.

(Credit: Canada China International Film Festival)

Sometimes I have hunches about movies. I either take a risk and end up enjoying myself or end up stuck with a movie that I didn’t really wanted to see. The latter has happened often, which is why I’m getting picky about going to the theatre lately. Not everything out there is really worth seeing. That being said, not watching anything is not the solution. So, I threw my reluctance aside and saw this at the Canada China International Film Festival.

Assassin on the String is the work of director Tankai Ou who also co-wrote it with Ranning Li and Xue Gong. The movie trailer highlights a lot of the action, which is primarily fantastic as this is a world in which martial arts and music can be combined. As great as that sounded, the focus of the film starts with action and quickly turns to the dramatic and romantic aspects, so I have to say… Don’t expect an action film. The action dies very quickly here. Unfortunately, for lovers of sweeping romantic dramas, the movie is going to come up short on that too.

Which is a pity, because it does seem like the story wants to take us back to a confrontation, it just can’t decide on whether that will be combat or drama. There is a duel of sorts at the very end, but I’d hardly call it action-packed. This wouldn’t be a bad thing if the rest of the movie played to its strengths but it definitely feels like a lot of possible directions and no real commitment to one genre. The action starts decent and there’s innovation in the musical aspect of it, but audiences looking for action will be thoroughly disappointed once we’re past the first scenes.

The film had many strengths. Sets are well done, cinematography looks potentially stunning, and the sweeping vistas when we’re out on nature are beautiful. However, the transitions are mixed bag, and at their worse the audience is left wondering where and when the story thread is left. More often than not, the beautiful takes are spoiled with the addition of something I haven’t seen in a long time… Slow motion. No, not the modern flowy visuals, the old time style of jarring images as if we were watching stop-motion. That’s too bad, because just leaving the camera to capture the water, the desert, the birds, the field, anything – would have been pretty fantastic. It’s unnecessary, and it interrupts the scene. It’s also used so much during the film that you can’t forget it.

Add to this the annoying habit of trying to show us a character’s mental process by showing us past scenes (often in slow motion too, to add insult to injury) from the same film. Say a character finds himself betrayed (sorry, I know this is very much a spoiler) by a character that already had the whole thing explained some minutes ago. The first character has to relive all the scenes that tie together to convey something we already were explained in detail by a previous conversation. It’s double exposition, something I’ve come to consider the kiss of death of a movie and this is not a long movie.

There’s a scene right before the final act where a character says something like “there’s no way to retreat from this now.” That summed up how I was feeling. The movie is done at that point, it’s neither action nor drama and much less an epic. It has all the sets and the period costumes and the action effects and some performances are half decent. But at this point, no identity was established. Everything in performance and style went halfway close to somewhere and never got there. There is nothing to do but wrap up, and even the finale feels like it cheats out the audience of a decent closure.

Not recommended. I want to sincerely hope there were scenes left on the cutting floor that could’ve save this one. Cut all the exposition and slow-motion and you still have enough time to bring in something, action or drama but good. However, when a movie has lost its way and doesn’t know what it wants to be, the lack of commitment dooms it. I truly think it had the potential to turn around somewhere and either become an action epic or an epic drama. There was charisma in the main villain, and I was saving some hope for a climatic finale. Unfortunately, it ends with a whimper.

That will do for now.