Hou Hsiao-Hsien strives for realism, not magic. That’s why he took the Cannes Best Director prize this year for “The Assassin” back to Taiwan, where the master auteur has been making films (“The Puppetmaster,” “A City of Sadness,” “Millennium Mambo,” “Flight of the Red Balloon”) for over three decades.
The China-financed film endured decades of stop-and-go development and production before becoming Hou’s seventh Cannes competition contender. A departure from his recent dramas including “La Belle Epoque,” this modestly scaled martial arts epic shows Hou painting on a much bigger canvas — but with tweezers.
Starring Shu Qi as the titular warrior, “The Assassin” is set in 9th-century, Tang Dynasty China, where the 10-year-old daughter of a general is abducted by a nun who transforms her into an efficiently badass martial arts assassin tasked with wiping out corrupt governors. After failing an assignment, as seen in a lushly black-and-white prologue, she is sent back to her homeland with orders to kill her cousin, also her betrothed to-be, who now steers the largest military region in North China.
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This is far and away from the worlds of Zhang Yimou (“Hero,” “House of Flying Daggers”) or perhaps Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger,” where people are flying around in the air doing fantastical things, as director Hou explains. He straps “The Assassin” firmly to the ground — and to the mixed, real-world emotions of his protagonists. It’s a shivering wuxia-inspired beauty — with shimmering shots of fog, clandestine lovers behind gauzy candlelit curtains, creaking floorboards and cavernous cliffs that open up to aching voids — with enough splashes of Freudian weirdness to wriggle into your dreamscapes. I thought of the film for many sleeps after seeing it at the Toronto Film Festival.
Well Go USA Entertainment opens “The Assassin,” which is Taiwan’s Oscar entry, stateside Friday, October 16. Below, I spoke with Hou by way of a translator.
You have long worked with your cinematographer Mark Lee. How do you stage a scene together, and especially an action scene as shown in “The Assassin”?
We’ve worked together for a very long time because we have very good chemistry, very good rapport. We know what each other wants. So when we shoot a scene, basically the art director Huang Wen-Ying comes and places everything together, and once the set is ready to go, Mark will show up and figure out exactly from which angle he wants to shoot; he would lay down the dolly track, light the scene. Sometimes he would just do that on his own without really talking to me because we read each other’s mind, because that’s the way we work.
There’s an obsessive level of period detail in the film that’s astonishing. The silk, the walls, the drapes, the ornate costumes: each room is stunning. How did you and your production designer achieve that?
There’s a very exhaustive level of research involved in creating the production design. My art director did a lot of research and at the time we knew that silk was a very popular substance and artifact at the time; a lot of things like the curtains were made of silk. We went out of our way, to India, and to Korea, to look for a very particular kind of silk that we ended up employing in the film. In terms of the furniture and the sets, the artifacts, those were building events. There’s this one particular carpenter we’ve worked with for a long time; the silk reflects light in a very special way. At the time in the Tang dynasty it was all candlelight, so we needed a substance that could be very reflective. This is something I learned during “Flowers of Shanghai,” when we were experimenting with oil lamps. This time, the reflection the silk had in candlelight was so beautiful. My assistant director and I walked through the set and made our adjustments, and Mark Lee would come in to lay down the track and once it was good to go, we would start shooting.
The plot of the film is often kept a mystery. But there’s no wasted or extra space. Every scene has meaning. I understand you shot almost 450,000 feet of film; much was cut. Why, and when, did you decide to make cuts?
There are many reasons. The film is set in Tang Dynasty, so I wanted it to be authentic to that era; the way the actors carried themselves had to be very realistic. I don’t do rehearsals. I want spontaneity. That itself took a very long time. In terms of the action sequences, because this is the first time I’ve done them, and the actors are not professional fighters or martial artists, that took a lot of takes. My guiding philosophy was I did not want to do something that defied gravity. I didn’t want people flying around, doing fantastical things. I wanted realism. I wanted people to be stuck to the ground, so to speak. In terms of the action, it was very important for that to be right, to be organic, to be natural. We had to shoot in bits and pieces because the actors are not well-trained.
You didn’t shoot a film for half a decade while running the Taipei Film Festival. How did that experience impact you? You revolutionized the way festivals were structured in your country, so that they were less influenced by individuals and agendas.
It’s actually the opposite. I feel like I brought my filmmaking experience to bear upon my festival duties. I was the chair of the Taipei Film Festival, and the Golden Chair Film Festival in Taiwan. I made very significant structural changes because for a very long time, it was the chairman, the chief, whoever was in charge of the festival, basically had an autocratic process. Whoever was in charge could decide all kinds of things. For me, it was important to make the structural changes whereby there’s an executive committee that’s separated from the chairman. Now it’s the executive committee that decides things, whether it’s the selection process, administration, whatever. The chairman can change, but the committee members do their job without being hijacked by the chairperson. It was important I spent a long time to make sure this change happened.
How was “The Assassin” received in Taiwan? Were audiences surprised by your shift to more action-oriented filmmaking?
What the audience eventually saw as very different from what they had preconceived or imagined. For the most part, it’s still difficult for the Taiwanese audience to embrace a film like this. For the most part, in Taiwan, it was still more the arthouse audience that embraced the film. For common audiences, there’s still more gap and distance between them and the film. That’s the reality of Taiwan, where people are more accustomed to Hollywood filmmaking and narrative structure. CMPC, Central Motion Picture Corporation, which is my financier and distributor, because I won Best Director in Cannes, they used that for publicity’s sake. In Taiwan, the entire country has 89 screens; the movie was screened on 84 screens. That’s a lot of screens. I think this is crazy. This is insane. In terms of promotion, it didn’t warrant that many screens. In a way it’s almost like a failure; it’s weird they put it on so many screens. Many audiences probably need to see it a second or third time to full grasp the film, and that’s what CMPC hoped for, that the audience would return to watch it multiple times. But the fact of the matter is, you have to pay to see movies; it costs money to see a movie again and again. In terms of their planning and anticipation, there were problems there.