Kay Hoddy from Easternkicks.com compared the film to a Ming dynasty vase: “Beautiful […] but just as empty.” In a sense, Hoddy is absolutely right. If you manage to see nothing after viewing The Assassin, you have indeed understood the something that the film seeks to convey. Getting something or getting nothing from this film depends on the way you approach its reality. For some viewers, The Assassin conveys an ideal central to Zen (or in Chinese, Chan) Buddhism: mingxin jianxing, illuminate the heart, thus allowing nature to reveal itself. For others, the film is merely Hou’s aesthetic exercise. Both opinions are honest evaluations of the film, and they are in fact one single idea seen from two different perspectives.
A filmmaker can never sketch an abstract impression; rather, he or she must observe and record an environment in the most concrete, simple, and flavorless (pingdan) manner, so that any dramatic action is immersed into the ordinariness of its environment. The audience’s attention is therefore drawn from the dramatic action to an abstract mental state called an “ideational environment” (yijing), which cannot be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, touched, or even thought of. In this sense, it can be regarded as nothingness.
Yet such nothingness emerges as something when the viewer comes face-to-face with the image, as an ideational environment is thought to be part of the viewer’s own consciousness projected on the image. For Liu Na’ou, one does not watch a film but observes it, allowing the film to reflect a part of one’s self like a mirror. This process, for Liu, is called observation-reflection (guanzhao). Therefore, in The Assassin, whether you manage to see something or nothing depends on how you perceive yourself in relation to the overall environment of the film.
What we manage to see in The Assassin is nothing more or less than what we allow ourselves to see in our selves. The Assassin is indeed like a Ming vase, beautiful — and — empty. Those who love this film can see only the vase, and those who dislike this film can see only the emptiness inside it. But without the vase, we cannot manage to see its emptiness, and there is, in fact, no emptiness unless there is a vase that demarcates its boundaries. It is therefore by means of the vase that nothing is turned into something, and that something is, after all, nothing.