Hou Hsiao-Hsien may not be a household name in America, but the legendary Taiwanese director —responsible for sterling dramas about his native country’s history and culture, including 1993’s “The Puppetmaster,” 1996’s “Goodbye South, Goodbye,” 1998’s “Flowers of Shanghai,” and 2005’s “Three Times”— has made a bid for greater mainstream recognition with “The Assassin.”
A meditation on the Chinese “wuxia” (i.e. martial arts/swordsman) genre, Hou’s latest retains his signature long takes, poetic pacing and naturalistic atmosphere, even as it employs these elements for more action-oriented material. The story of a trained killer (Shu Qi) who after a failed mission is sent back to her hometown to slay its governor (Cang Chen), “The Assassin” is a film of dazzling, hypnotic beauty.
Having nabbed Hou a Best Director prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and having premiered stateside to critical praise at the New York Film Festival, it’s one of the year’s finest imports. While in town for the NYFF, Hou sat down with the Playlist to discuss his lifelong love of the martial arts genre, the changes he made to his source material, and the reason for the eight-year gap between 2007’s “Flight of the Red Balloon” and “The Assassin.”
I know you’ve been a serious fan of “wuxia” films since you were a child. Was it always your intention to make one yourself?
As you mentioned, my love of martial arts novels started very early. I started reading them when I was in fifth and sixth grade, and I pretty much finished all of the contemporary martial arts novels. Then I went back in time to different dynasties, to read the “Notebook” novels, which are short stories and legends, and one of which is the Tang legends. They are very short and there are lots of interesting stories and characters. It was in college that I first came across the story of Nie Yinniang (“Nie Yinniang” by Pei Xing). I always had it in my head that one day I was going to make a film about this particular character in my movie. So when I was at the National University of Arts majoring in film, that is when I first thought about making this.
Why adapt this story in particular? And how does your film differ from the short story?
As I mentioned, these stories are short, including this one, and I was really attracted to this particular character immediately. She was a character that when she was very, very young, she was seen by a nun. The nun saw her potential, and thus wanted to train her as an assassin. So she requested that her father let her train this particular little girl. Her father was a very famous general at the time, and he pretty much told the nun, “in your dreams” and “over my dead body.” But then the nun told him that even if you hide her in a closet, I’m going to get her. And later that night, she kidnapped her to train as an assassin.
After the girl learned all the skills of an assassin, the nun returned her to the family, and her parents were very curious about what she’d learned throughout these years. She told them that they were trained as a group and that they learned how to kill monkeys, tigers and even eagles. The parents were very shocked about the information that she disclosed and didn’t really know what to do with her. And by chance, a mirror-polishing boy somehow came around —and at the time, to see clearly, you needed to constantly polish the mirrors. So this character came about, and the girl requested to marry him. The parents agreed, and so they built this little house right next to where they lived so they could settle down and not cause any trouble.
As for my film, its black-and-white prologue concerns two assassination attempts: one is successful and happens very quickly, and one has her going to assassinate this particular character. Seeing that a child is present, she decides not to, and is confronted about it by the nun. These two assassination attempts pretty closely stick to the original novels. Later on, when the film is in color, it’s more of an adaptation of the original story.
“The Assassin” is something of a departure for you, into more action-oriented territory. What is it about wuxia films that appeal to you?
My brothers and I were all avid readers of martial arts novels; we’d go to street vendors and we’d finish all of the different martial arts books. After one year, we’d just about finished everything available at the time, so then we’d have to wait, and wait, and wait, for new ones. In the meantime, we’d move on to other gangster novels, or melodramatic novels. In middle school, I started reading lots of translated novels from the West, including the “Robinson Crusoe” stories, “The Count of Monte Cristo,” and all of those famous translated novels. When I got to high school and college, I began getting involved with films, but in the back of my mind, I kept thinking about those novels, and especially those martial arts novels I read in childhood.
Not only that, but also the film industry was full of very popular martial arts films —from the Shaw Brothers, and you had those samurai films from Japan. So my inspiration [to take on a project like “The Assassin”] came partly because of my childhood memories, and partly because of the films that were popular when I first started making films.
Martial arts movies are generally more heavily edited and faster paced than your work. Did you ever consider employing traditional wuxia techniques for “The Assassin?”
I was very influenced by the Japanese samurai films of the time, and they are very, very different from Chinese martial-arts films as a genre, because they’re grounded in physics. People are limited by the gravity that we experience on a daily basis. I think that was more of an inspiration. Furthermore, this particular story from the Tang legends is written in a realistic tone, and that matched very well with my previous style. I see realism as one of the main things I wanted to maintain in this particular film. Even though it’s a “wuxia” film, I want all the movements and all the action to be rooted in physics —no one is defying gravity, flying around in the air, and doing things that are completely beyond human capabilities. That’s the reason I made this film in a realistic way. There might be fast moving action, but those are the movements they would have learned through training.
You generally don’t do a lot of rehearsing, but the action in “The Assassin” would seem to demand at least some. How did you go about crafting the film’s centerpiece skirmishes?
A lot of films I’ve shot in the past are about daily lives, and so you don’t need almost any rehearsal at all, because when you start memorizing everything —dialogue, movements— it can become very unnatural. That’s why I’ve made a point to not rehearse in my previous films.
However, there are a lot of action sequences in “The Assassin,” and it would have been impossible to shoot those parts without any rehearsal. So I divided those action sequences into small fragments, and I shot them in small doses, one at a time. I would ask the actors who were involved in those particular scenes to really practice the choreography and how they were going to fight, as a duo or as a group. They had to familiarize themselves with the action and build muscle memory so they could embody those movements. These actors are not martial artists, so they had to start from scratch and really learn how to interact and fight each other in small fragments.
Even with these small fragments, I had to shoot them again and again and again. Sometimes, I’d be shooting a scene and realize that I was not getting what I want, and I’d have to completely change the scene so the actors would hopefully find the right way to interact with each other. We went to many different locations, and they’d have to fight in very, very high altitudes too —in Hubei province and in Mongolia’s silver barked forest, and later on I also built a set so they could fight on the roof. It was all highly choreographed, but at the same time, we did it in small doses so we could reshoot, and do retakes.
Your last film, “Flight of the Red Balloon” was completed in 2007. Was the complicated action of “The Assassin” the reason it took so long to make?
It’s not that I’ve just been making this film for the past 7-8 years. For three years, I was serving as a chair for the Taipei Film Festival, and I also served as a chair of the Golden Horse Film Festival and Awards for five years. During that period, I might have had time to think about the script, but I didn’t have time for shooting because I wanted to devote myself to my role as a chairperson for these two events; I really wanted to restructure how they put together these organizations so they could sustain themselves.
When I finished my tenure as a chair at these two institutions, I devoted all of my time toward this film. From the script to the completion of the film, it was about three years. So it wasn’t eight years! But it was definitely still longer than I usually shoot.
While the oblique style of “The Assassin” will be familiar to your fans, are you worried that it may disappoint “wuxia” aficionados expecting something more conventional?
This is a problem I’ve had throughout my career, and it should be very obvious that I don’t make films based on the market or based on the audience. As a director, it’s more important that I do things in my own style, without thinking about the market or the audience or trying to mimic the traditional way of making films. It’s easier for me to just do me, and to do the styles and the philosophies that I adhere to.
After seeing “The Assassin,” many will say that they don’t understand it, and that it’s very, very hard to grasp. But after the second time and the third time, it’ll be much clearer about what is actually going on! So it’s funny that, with the entire marketing and promotion of this film, we’re actually saying ahead of time, “You might not understand it the first time, but if you come back a second or third time, you’ll get it!”
“The Assassin” opens in limited release on October 16th.