Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s movies are rich with visual information and ideas in equal measures. “The Assassin,” the 68-year-old filmmaker’s first movie since 2008’s “Flight of the Red Balloon,” is no exception: The pictorial narrative borrows from the wuxia genre of martial art films while transforming that aesthetic into his own unique take. The story, as it were, takes place in the 9th century during the Tang Dynasty, where the eponymous killer (Shu Qi) struggles with an assignment to kill various government figures with whom she maintains a mysterious connection.
While those circumstances lead to a variety of physical showdowns, much of “The Assassin” unfolds through a series of Hou’s delicate long takes, each of which showcases complex color palettes and contributes to an immersive atmosphere. At the Cannes Film Festival where “The Assassin” premiered, audiences were left in awe of Hou’s mesmerizing vision — but it wasn’t the first time. In town for the New York Film Festival screenings of his movie, Hou sat down with Indiewire — aided by a translator — to explain his decision more than 30 years ago to leave conventional filmmaking behind, and where he sees the Taiwanese film industry heading today. “The Assassin” opens in limited release this Friday.
What has been your relationship to the wuxia genre over the years?
In sixth grade, I would read a lot of comic book collections with my big brother, and it was always a set of stories. And then once I started reading more, it was the short stories of wuxia genre. But in terms of film, my first visual experiences were mostly through samurai types of films of Japanese influence because that’s what was showing at the theaters near me.
So which films in particular really stood out?
There’s no one title that sticks out for me; I saw so much as a kid. The early samurai ones, the ones that were adapted from novels and stuff — these were my favorites. It wasn’t until later, in my college years, that the Shaw brothers movies came out. Those are the movies that I remember. But I didn’t have any particular one in mind. Still, the biggest influence was the samurai stuff. They’re called chanbara. [Translator: I’m not really sure what the direct translation is.] That was a genre that they would call these films. So these were my favorite growing up.
“The Assassin” offers a vivid look at the Tang Dynasty. On the one hand, it seems to celebrate that era because every image is just so beautiful. But at the same time, the titular woman has to resist various social and institutional pressures of the time.
This woman is not really a reflection of how women fit into society. In that period, when people were writing these kinds of short stories of the characters, female assassins appeared throughout. This character in particular is not very specific. She’s not the only one. There were other assassins that were female. And the role of women and how they fit into this continued into longer novels and further dynasties. So I’m not really trying to say anything about the role of a woman even in a much larger picture. But definitely at that the time, female characters were very prevalent as the main characters in these short stories.
Your images are so complex that they often supersede the plot. How does that result from your writing process?
I uses images when I write the script. When I go to a location, the location has to fit around the images that I have on the page. I can fix the shot, I can kind of work around it and stuff, but in general the script remains what I put down on paper. If the location is found, we make the location work for the script, as opposed to the other way around.
That’s such a particular style of working and it reflects a certain degree of freedom. Yet you started your career in the Taiwanese commercial industry. How did that inform the evolution of your technique?
I feel that the progression to the filmmaker that I am today wasn’t a decision. It was more of a natural progression, because I started as a writer and also a director. A lot of it was because of the market at the time. I wrote a lot of comedies and they were quite successful, and so I understand this world. But then, when French new wave cinema started happening, a group of young directors had a discussion about how we could do very similar movies — in the sense that we wanted to focus on realism and almost borderline documentary filmmaking about life that we know about. We wanted to tell real stories, and so I started to change the way I directed his films.
What kind of impact does that history have on you today?
At this point, I can’t go back to making a commercial movie anymore because I’ve already created what I feel is the only way I can make movies. Even though something like “The Assassin” is based on a wuxia, it is still rooted in the reality of the period and the people of that time, so that’s how I approached it. Even though it’s part of an era that we don’t know anything about, I still tried to make it as realistic as possible to tell the story from the view of a person at that time.
Speaking of working outside of the commercial arena, you’ve been involved with the Taipei Film Festival and the Golden Horse Film Festival for the last several years. I wanted to ask about the value you see for those kinds of festivals — and in a larger sense where the Taiwanese film industry is heading these days.
My work in the Taipei Film Festival and the Golden Horse Film Festival is logistical. Initially, everything was chosen by one person, so I wanted to break that down, have juries, and different people choose the movies. So I worked with a guy named Wen Tien-Hsiang, who I basically sent out there to understand what film festivals are about and what kind of visions the Taipei Film Festival and now the Golden Horse will have.
During this period of time, the idea of making a wuxia movie, which is “The Assassin,” came into play. It was inspired by a short that I had read in college. I started to do a little bit more research on it while I was working for both of these festivals. I decided, “I’m at a certain age and if I don’t do this film now, then when am I going to be able to do this?”
In terms of what I think about the current market in the Taiwan film industry, a lot of the young directors tend to do commercial films now because that’s just the way the market is set up, and they have no real interest in becoming auteur directors. The pressure for them is to succeed commercially because if not, no one will invest in their next projects. A lot of them also want to break into China. But the problem is the way Taiwan has maybe modernized a bit longer than China has modernized, so what is considered a modern story is a little bit different.
So a lot of times when they try to make a movie for the China market, it doesn’t quite work. It’s just a little bit off. And China is such a huge country, so the way the people think there is just a little bit different from the way that people in Taiwan think. So these are the pressures that a young filmmaker has to deal with if they want to be a successful person in the film industry.