Immediately, we have no idea what is going on in The Assassin. And to my amazement, by the end, I still indeed had no idea what was going on. But that is not what makes the movie good. It is the never-ending sequence of beautiful shots.
First– the colors were amazing. Right off the bat, the movie is in black and white. This lasts until the title is displayed– a subtle yet clever indication that everything we have seen thus far was a flashback. Afterwards, the movie is an explosion of flamboyant colors. Particularly in the ELS taken outdoors during travel, their bright outfits contrast the natural greens surrounding them. But these color contrasts served more as contrast between their complex way of life vs. the simplicity of nature. There is something comforting and refreshing about witnessing trees blowing in the wind right after listening to some general babble about world domination for fifteen minutes.
Framing and camera movement went hand-in-hand in The Assassin. They minimized cuts (only when the scene changed or greatly during combat). When multiple people in a room were talking, rather than showing a LS of everyone, they used a MS that slowly but surely panned/tilted over to the next speaker seamlessly with dialogue. And the shots would last for several minutes at a time. I have never seen that in a movie before, and to me was by the far the coolest attribute of the entire film (aside from the unexpected, yet badass outro music).
Hsiao-Hsen played around with focus and layers (depth) to the extent that some of the dialogue and plot progression are utterly useless. While the general and his wife spend twenty minutes discussing how much they pity the assassin, the camera is slowly shifting around between translucent curtains and alternating focus on various layers such as candles or, at one point, the assassin herself. This adds an element of surprise that is usually obtained with rapid cuts. Instead, the assassin is slowly focused into view, and you panic nonetheless.
Did the colors mean anything else to you? Were the layers symbolic perhaps? And although most of the shots were smooth, they were still handheld (you can constantly see a slight tremble in the camera movements). Was that a good or bad call for a movie aiming for such beauty?