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A Conversation with Hou Hsiao-Hsien – Director of ‘The Assassin’

A Conversation with Hou Hsiao-Hsien - Director of 'The Assassin'

At the New York Film Festival press screening, Hou Hsiao-Hsien spoke with Dennis Lim about his new film “The Assassin for which he won Best
Director at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival.

Filmed on location in Japan and on set in Taiwan, “The Assassin” centers on the story of Yinniang, who, abducted at age 10, is now a Tang Dynasty
assassin dedicated to the art of killing until memory transforms her course of action.

The Story

Hou Hsiao-Hsien:
“There is a lot of information from the Tang Dynasty — tales, legends and novels. I first came across this story in college. I wanted to bring this
realism into the film. The story is based on historical facts and then I fleshed out the characters.

I wanted to do this film in the wuxia genre. I wanted to draw inspiration from Samurai movies from Japan as a long tradition of this martial arts practice
that would be more in line of how I see the wuxia genre; it should be based on the realistic depiction of human capacity.”

Working with Actors

Hou Hsiao-Hsien
: “I work with actors and actresses I have worked with together before; they know my style and how I work on set. They will know the script and know the
mood I want to create. There is no rehearsal. They come to the set prepared. They know what the scene is about. I have to set up the lights and camera, and
I set up the dolly and tracks, and then I ask them to go onto the set I created for them. Hopefully they will be inspired by this mise-en-scène, and the
location. The actors immerse themselves and embody the characters. Things happen naturally. Sometimes they do take after take, and when they get too
comfortable, they get mechanical and unnatural. I want to somehow change the scene for them, to really act. The long takes go with that particular way of

The Dagger and Action Sequences

Hou Hsiao-Hsien explained how the main character Yinniang has a strategic advantage, using the short dagger; it allows her to swiftly outmaneuver her
opponents’ unwieldly swords.

Hou Hsiao-Hsien:
“To utilize such a short dagger, timing is so important. That burst of action. That’s how I design action sequences. These actors are not trained in
martial arts. There was a lot of training. What I did was divide all the action sequences into small fragments one at a time, and they (the actors) have to
complete it in that short fragment. Still, it takes a long time — to find their weapons, they get injured, they have to rest, and if they shoot the scene
over and over, we have to change location. It’s time-consuming and painstaking.”

Jiaxin, the princess-turned-nun and Yinniang’s abductor, criticizes Yinniang for not following through with an assassination:

“Your skill is matchless, but your mind is hostage to human sentiments.”

“Your heart lacks resolve.”

These two lines are at the heart of the conflict found in Yinniang’s journey in this intimate and powerful wuxia drama.

Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, Susan Kouguell teaches screenwriting at Purchase College SUNY, and presents international seminars on
screenwriting and film. Author of SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! and THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER, she is chairperson of Su-City
Pictures East, LLC, a consulting company founded in 1990 where she works with writers, filmmakers, and executives worldwide.,

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