An art film and a martial-arts film, an action movie and an inaction movie, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s “The Assassin” is a thrilling cinematic paradox — a picture that, by rights, shouldn’t even exist. From conception to research to scripting to financing to shooting to post-production, it took the director eight years to make his visually resplendent wuxia epic about a female assassin named Nie Yinniang (played by Shu Qi) operating against the backdrop of China’s Tang dynasty. As his admirers and detractors alike will agree, Hou doesn’t just flout narrative convention; he has a unique allergy to compromise. Always working to his own rhythms, he tends to think long and hard about those moments in time, and those spaces within a frame, that a more traditionally inclined filmmaker might gloss over (and vice versa).
A titan of the Taiwanese New Wave with a monumental body of work (including 1989’s “A City of Sadness” and 1998’s “Flowers of Shanghai”), Hou is one of the most critically revered filmmakers working today, though like most artists working outside the American movie industry, he has yet to find a significant audience in this country. “The Assassin,” which earned him the best director prize at Cannes and will represent Taiwan in the Oscar foreign-language race, may turn the tide at least slightly in his favor. Still, during a recent sit-down at the Busan Film Festival, it became clear that whatever accolades are headed his way, Hou has no intention of tempering his style or catering to audience expectations anytime soon. (Our interview, excerpted below and edited for clarity, was translated from Mandarin by the film producer Eugene Suen.)
Have you been following the audience reactions to “The Assassin?”
My sense is that it’s not easy for people to grasp the film the first time around. It seems that cinephiles and critics are able to have a clear sense of what the film is about after just one viewing. For everyone else, they need a second viewing, or even a third viewing. (laughs) It’s tough. I feel like even my earlier films had problems communicating with the audience. But you can’t wait for the audience. I can’t help but make films the way I do.
I suppose we can say this has to do with the history of cinema, with the fact that cinema started out with silent films — i.e., films that rely solely on the power of the image, on the strength of visual expression. My sense is that later on, once cinema came under the influence of drama, movies became “dramatic,” or at least that’s the direction cinema seems to have gone. The kind of pure cinema which relies solely on the image, on the visual, has disappeared for a long time.
Can you talk about the wuxia novels you read as a child? And why did you choose “Nie Yinniang” specifically to adapt into a film?
I read a lot of wuxia novels growing up, starting in elementary school. Because of this, I also developed the habit of reading novels in general. For me, it’s great that I unconsciously developed an appreciation for the written words this way. When I was a freshman in college, I read a book called “Legends of the Tang Dynasty”/”Stories of the Tang People,” a collection of short stories and vignettes from the Tang dynasty. “Nie Yinniang” was one of the stories in the book.
These stories were written by people living in that actual era; the writers were writing about things that were contemporary and topical to them. When I read the short stories in the collection, I was totally transfixed. The story of “Nie Yinniang” made a particularly strong impression on me. It was about an assassin, and she had a great name: The Chinese character for “Nie” is composed of three identical characters for the word “ear” (conveying the notion of listening attentively). I was mesmerized by the form and structure of the character “Nie,” and the character for “Yin” means “hidden,” and “Niang” means “woman.” I thought her name was just fantastic.
I was also mesmerized by the story itself, by the fact that she was led away by a nun as a kid. Her father, a general, refused to give his daughter away and he thought the nun was insane for even asking. But the nun told him, “Wherever you hide her, I will find her.” Sure enough, the nun found and took her away that very evening. The daughter returned years later, and the father asked her, “What have you been up to all these years?” She told him about her training, about how she could now fly and kill birds, eagles, tiger, lions, etc. … She was able to do it all! This is what the original story is like. But I didn’t end up following it; I didn’t think it was possible for me to shoot this sort of thing. I just liked her name and how the story begins. Everything about her training and what happens after, I pretty much rewrote it all.
For an action movie, there’s very little physical violence, which makes it feel all the more grounded in reality. Did you know how much action you wanted in the film at the outset?
Before we started shooting, I consulted an action choreographer who is quite famous in Hong Kong. I told him that, no matter what, the action has to be true to the characters, to their essence. This action choreographer didn’t get it. He kept emphasizing “speed” to me. For example, if my hand accidentally touches a glass of water, and the glass falls off the table — while the water is still spilling out in mid-air, in slow-motion, the relevant character would already be flying to the side and striking down, say, eight opponents. I thought to myself, “What is this? Who cares? It’s all fake.” For me, this sort of thing is useless, so I didn’t hire him. My feeling was: Let’s not defy gravity. Let’s not have people fly around. No. I wanted realistic action. If we went the other route (i.e. the fantastical route), there’d be no end to it. Anything would be possible, and we’d have no parameters of any sort.
Sometimes I’d see movies from the West — say, movies set in ancient Rome — and in the action scenes, the blood would be gushing out like crazy. I have absolutely no interest in that. For me, it’s about the integrity of the action and about the characters. If the character is an assassin, she’d probably have a short blade or knife hidden on her, and she would follow her targets closely and strike them at the precise split-second. It’d all be done in an instant. That’s what I care about.
What were some of the difficulties you encountered during the production?
I feel like I didn’t encounter any difficulties! (laughs) Actually, I did, because we needed a lot of manpower in China. The scope of the production was large, and it was difficult to transport people from one place to another. We needed a lot of cars, and it didn’t help that the locations I wanted were remote. Sometimes we had to walk up to very high places and haul heavy equipment up the mountains. My God, some of these mountains were high! I myself could walk pretty fast because I am an avid hiker, but a lot of people couldn’t catch up. The shoot was energy-consuming and time-consuming. You don’t want to push people too hard; otherwise the quality of the work could get affected. I don’t push people beyond their limit. I don’t do things like that.
Also, Shu Qi and Zhou Yun had never done action like this before; they had to practice continuously. We shot and stopped, shot and stopped, just so they’d have time in between to practice. And they would frequently get bruised — even though the knifes and the swords were fake, they would still get bruised. They would rest if they got hurt. So we shot and stopped, and in this manner did the action scenes in bits and pieces.
In some ways I was less in control on “The Assassin” than on my previous films. You needed time and patience on this.
This is your first film funded almost equally between Taiwan and China. Can you speak to the state of filmmaking in Asia, especially in light of the rise of the mainland market?
I don’t think the Chinese market is that diverse yet. China still produces “dramatic” films. Drama is obviously still a key element in contemporary cinema. Everyone is copying Hollywood. You rarely get to have pure cinema that relies on sound and image. That sort of cinema is still considered “art” cinema. Movies are only 100 years old. They haven’t been around for that long, yet Milan Kundera has already declared, “Cinema is dead.” He doesn’t think movies should be a mere imitation of drama and theater. For me, cinema is still young; it still can’t function like written words, which have been around for far longer.
When we see an image, we could only see the surface. It’s like in real life — it’s hard to go deeper, beyond what you see on the surface. It’s hard to get at just through looking, just through beholding an image. Words can do that. They can go deeper. But with images, we only see the surface. We need more time to develop the language of cinema, to explore its possibilities. It’s going to take a while before anything changes. But the Internet may be helpful in this respect: these days, people can easily shoot and put up their works online. But it will still take time. I feel like at the end of the day, it still comes down to understanding and appreciating the art of cinema.