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Hou Hsiao-hsien on Bringing His Trademark Realism to Wuxia Masterpiece ‘The Assassin’

Hou Hsiao-hsien on Bringing His Trademark Realism to Wuxia Masterpiece ‘The Assassin’

READ MORE: Watch: Beauty is Razor Sharp in Action-Packed ‘The Assassin’ U.S. Trailer

Hou Hsiao-hsien’s latest film, “The Assassin,” is the 68-year-old Taiwanese filmmaker’s first foray into the wuxia genre, a Chinese fiction favorite dealing with martial arts, chivalry and sorcery.

The drama tells the story of a princess-turned-assassin (played by Shu Qi) who was trained to murder corrupt politicians by a nun in exile. After struggling to complete one of her assignments, she is sent to kill her cousin, a military leader, as a punishment intended to toughen her up. The film’s simple premise is rendered in gorgeous fashion, as Hou’s ornamental visual style, exquisite framing and methodical filmmaking imbue one of the oldest genres in Chinese literature and cinema with an unparalleled degree of artistry and grace.

Following the screening, Hou discussed the making of the film and how he maintained his patented sense of realism within the wuxia genre. From the onset, Hou spoke to the high degree of preparation required to make a wuxia film from the Tang Dynasty. Getting a film set in such a remote location and time period to still summon a sense of realism was only possible by carefully re-examining all the stories from the Tang period, including “Nie Yinniang,” the story from which “The Assassin” is based.

“In order for me to somehow bring that realistic portrayal and realism into this particular film, of course I needed to go back into all this archival material and do my research and my homework,” he said. “I relied on these historical details as a starting point to extend my imagination for the rest of the characteristics of the characters.”

Speaking to whether or not his preferred sense of realism was at odds with the wuxia genre, he explained, “I wanted a film based on my own interpretation of the wuxia genre. This idea of defying gravity and people flying around in the air is just not something that I even contemplated doing.” Instead, Hou looked to Japanese samurai movies for inspiration Those types of martial arts practices, according to Hou, were “more in line of what I think the wuxia genre should be based on my own realistic depiction of human capacity.”

Even though he might have omitted some of the elaborate stunt work and fantastical elements typical of many works of wuxia from “The Assassin,” the film’s action sequences are mesmerizing nonetheless, punctuated most prominently by swift bursts of sword-fighting. Hou explained that because his actors and actresses were not trained martial artists, the preparation for the scenes was painstaking and time consuming, requiring large amounts of training, practice and choreography. Yet, this limitation also helped Hou determine how to best shoot the sequences with respect to time and space.

Hou recounted, “What I did is that I somehow divided all the action sequences into small fragments and I only shot one at a time in small dosages. They have to somehow complete all the choreography and all the movements and actions in that particular short fragment.”

On “The Assassin,” Hou re-teamed with many actors, who by this point were familiar with Hou’s unique approach on set. “They know exactly what this particular scene is about and all I have to do is set up the lights in the way that I want and set up the camera with my cinematographer Mark Lee…and ask them to then go into this particular set that I’ve created for them.” he said. “Hopefully, they will be inspired by this particular location, this particular mise-en-scène. They then can immerse themselves into the characters and embody the movements and the mood that I want to create.”

A similar principle explains Hou’s repeated use of tracking shots, which allow him to capture natural, unrehearsed and sometimes unscripted reactions from his actors. Throughout “The Assassin,” the camera wanders through the sublime set-pieces like an invisible guest, peeking through silk curtains and seeing through smoke to convey the meditative atmosphere of the film.

“The Assassin” will be screen for the public tonight and Saturday at Lincoln Center before opening in select theaters next week.

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