Meet Hou Hsiao-hsien, the Quiet Killer Behind the Martial-Arts Epic ‘The Assassin’

HOU HSIAOHSIEN The Assassin Director Variety
Van Sarki for Variety

If there is such a thing as casual gravitas, then Hou Hsiao-hsien embodies it. Arriving in the lobby of the Park Hyatt in Busan, South Korea, where his martial-arts epic, “The Assassin,” is making one of many stops on the festival circuit, the 68-year-old Taiwanese director whom many consider to be the world’s greatest living filmmaker radiates a calm, and calming, authority. Wearing a beige baseball cap and black zip-up jacket, and pausing occasionally for a quick cigarette, he speaks with the sort of earthy eloquence and modesty that his admirers have come to recognize in his movies, with their elusive, slow-building narratives and unassumingly beautiful images.

“It’s not easy for people to grasp the film fully the first time around,” Hou admits with a chuckle, communicating in Mandarin through an interpreter. “But you can’t wait for the audience. I can’t help but make films the way I do.”

Deceptively placid on the surface, but often rippling with emotion and complex historical undercurrents, Hou’s films give concrete form to the notion that still waters run deep. “The Assassin,” which opened Oct. 16 in limited domestic release and will expand wider this weekend, is equal parts action movie and inaction movie; it marks both an extension of his rigorous, meditative style and something of a departure. An elaborate re-creation of imperial life during China’s Tang dynasty, the film — which won Hou a directing prize at Cannes and will represent Taiwan in the foreign-language Oscar race — is by far his most expensive (at $15 million) and logistically complicated undertaking. With its genre trappings and glowing reception so far, it could also wind up as his most commercial film to date.

Van Sarki for Variety

Admittedly, that’s not a high bar to clear for someone who has seen only a handful of his 19 features receive a U.S. theatrical release, and whose enraptured following among critics and cinephiles has yet to translate into mainstream acknowledgment, let alone acceptance. Indeed, those who approach “The Assassin” expecting straight-up chopsocky may not be prepared for the slow and singular aesthetic object that awaits them — a likelihood that was not lost on Well Go USA Entertainment, the film’s North American distributor, when it placed a winning bid (sight unseen) before Cannes.

“Obviously, it’s an arthouse film to the core,” says Well Go CEO Doris Pfardrescher. “At the same time, because of the martial-arts element … maybe it’s not exactly what (our core fans) are expecting to see, but I certainly think it’s something that they should see.”

Hou believes that attempts to mirror U.S. studio movies have resulted in a cheapening of the form. “Everyone is copying Hollywood,” he says. “You rarely get to have pure cinema that relies on sound and image. That sort of cinema is still considered ‘art’ cinema. If no one takes this issue seriously, then the way you use the image is always going to be constrained by the conventions of drama. You won’t be able to fully explore the possibilities of the medium.”

Hou has certainly taken the notion of the filmmaker-as-explorer to heart. After directing a few commercial films in the early ’80s, he established himself as one of the defining figures of the Taiwanese New Wave in 1983 with “The Sandwich Man” (co-directed with Wan Jen and Tseng Chuang-hsiang) and a semi-autobiographical drama, “The Boys From Fengkuei.” He followed those films with another personal tale of childhood, “A Time to Live and a Time to Die” (1985), and a series of dense historical panoramas, including “A City of Sadness” (1989) and “The Puppetmaster” (1993), that deftly melded the personal and the political. In those works and his 1998 opus, “Flowers of Shanghai,” Hou refined a poetic yet naturalistic style of meticulously composed and choreographed long takes, framed by a gently moving camera that suggested the perspective of someone peering into the past — and encouraged in the viewer a similarly searching impulse.

“My feeling was: Let’s not defy gravity. Let’s not have people fly around. If the character is an assassin, there’s no way she’d be dancing and moving about in some fanciful way.”
Hou Hsiao-hsien

An acknowledged master whose work has influenced the likes of Jim Jarmusch, Jia Zhangke, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Hirokazu Kore-eda and Olivier Assayas (who directed a TV documentary about him in 1997), Hou has moved in ever more daring and experimental directions over the past decade, retaining his aesthetic signature even when he traveled to Tokyo for his wistful ode to Ozu, “Cafe Lumiere” (2003), or to Paris to work with Juliette Binoche on “Flight of the Red Balloon” (2007).

But he has never taken quite as radical a leap as with “The Assassin,” which cost about 10 times more than any of his earlier productions, and was financed equally in Taiwan and China — a first for him. The movie is one Hou has long dreamed of making: a rare dip into the inkwell of the celebrated wuxia genre, drawn from the martial-arts literature he fell in love with as a child.

Based on a short story by the ninth-century writer Pei Xing, the film follows the exploits of Nie Yinniang (Taiwanese actress Shu Qi), a woman who was abducted as a child by a devious nun and trained to be a highly skilled killer of corrupt leaders and officials. Ordered to prove her loyalty by targeting the provincial governor (Chang Chen) who was once her betrothed, she spends most of the movie not killing but stealthily watching, listening and waiting, becoming in the process a sort of stand-in for the filmmaker himself.

In all, Hou took eight years conceiving, planning, financing and executing the project, which spent a year in production (most of his shoots have wrapped in less than a month). The script alone, which he co-wrote with Hsieh Hai-meng, Zhong Acheng and his regular writing partner, Chu Tien-wen, took three years to finish, and was subjected to continual revisions based on the director’s exhaustive research into key figures and cultural customs of the Tang dynasty. By the time he began shooting in September 2012 (production would wrap in January 2014), Hou had amassed enough knowledge about his subject not only to make a film about it, but to qualify as a full-fledged Tang dynasty scholar.

“You have to have a firm grasp of the story you are dealing with,” Hou says. “This way, you know the parameters of your story, and you don’t wander off and end up all over the place.”

Ultimately, Hou prefers realism, says his longtime collaborator, Liao Ching-song, who served as producer and director of editing on “The Assassin.” “The story itself is a legend, a fantastical tale, but he likes to root things in reality and history.”

That grounded approach informed every intricate detail of Hwarng Wern-ying’s sets and costumes, as well as the actors’ use of a formal, archaic Mandarin diction befitting the era in which their characters lived. And it extended most of all to the action, which bears little resemblance to the combat seen in Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000), Zhang Yimou’s “Hero” (2002) and “House of Flying Daggers” (2004), and Wong Kar-wai’s “The Grandmaster” (2013), to name other recent forays into martial-arts cinema by Asian arthouse titans.

Woman in Black: Shu Qi plays Nie Yinniang, the killer at the heart of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s “The Assassin.”
Courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment

In short, you won’t see Yinniang slaying attackers left and right like some sort of whirling digital dervish, or soaring over a bamboo forest on invisible wires. Which is not to imply that no such footage was shot, according to Liao, who says Hou continually debated how closely he would adhere to some of the genre’s more outlandish conventions. While he had “absolutely no interest” in delivering a bloody spectacle, the director filmed extensive action scenes that required hours of laborious setup in remote, vehicle-inaccessible locations in China and Inner Mongolia. Completely avoiding CGI effects made it all the more time-consuming to achieve ideal shooting conditions.

“What we see on screen is only a portion of what they shot,” Liao says. “There was a lot of pressure about what kind of film he wanted to make, and obviously, in the end, he stuck  to realistic action and removed all the more fantastical stuff.”

Hou notes an overriding impulse to stay grounded. “My feeling was: Let’s not defy gravity. Let’s not have people fly around,” he says. “If the character is an assassin, there’s no way she’d be dancing and moving about in some fanciful way. No matter what, the action had to be true to the characters, to their essence.”

Shu, who previously starred in Hou’s “Millennium Mambo” (2001) and “Three Times” (2005), has grown accustomed to performing in the director’s observant, understated style. She describes his approach as one of “immersion and devotion,” noting that apart from the extensive reading material he gave her and her fellow actors (including Tang-era short stories as well as Japanese samurai novels), Hou’s approach was typically hands-off.

“Restraint is the most important thing when acting for director Hou,” Shu says. “But at the same time you’re holding back, you also need to express powerful desire and emotion. That’s the most difficult thing to balance.”

Mastering the action was also difficult, says Shu, who, like her co-star Zhou Yun (who played the nun who kidnaps Yinniang), had never performed this kind of combat before, and had to practice and train continually. Even when they were working with fake weapons, they sustained their share of bruises and often needed time to rest between takes. For practical reasons, the director went so far as to eliminate an opening scene featuring Shu hiding in the treetops, when he found out that his leading lady was afraid of heights.

“The first time she tried to shoot the scene, she couldn’t make herself jump out of the tree,” Hou laughs. “She just screamed.”

For all his extensive preparations, Hou’s willingness to accommodate his actors speaks to the kind of liberated atmosphere he likes to cultivate on set, as well as his interest in allowing for improvisation and spontaneity. In keeping with his usual practice, he never rehearsed scenes in advance, preferring instead for his actors to absorb the feel of their milieu and react in the moment. It’s a paradox that others have noted about the director’s working methods, which combine great exactitude with a remarkable sense of freedom: Only when every detail feels right at the outset, Hou notes, can he and his collaborators begin to experiment.

“In some ways, I was less in control on ‘The Assassin’ than on my previous films,” he says, adding, “Even though I hadn’t made a movie in a long time, I still relied on my instinct, the way I always did.”

The enthusiastic response to “The Assassin” would seem to mark a late-career resurgence for the director, who has already mentioned a possible next project, about a river goddess dwelling in the neglected waterways of contemporary Taipei. Liao suggests the director may have another Tang dynasty-era film in him as well, though not necessarily another wuxia movie. Either way, Hou says, he doesn’t plan to start tailoring his films to audience expectations anytime soon, or give up on a cinema that relies on images, not narrative and dialogue, to tell the story.

“For me, the purity of the image, of cinema, is too seductive,” he explains. “Movies are only 100 years old. For me, cinema is still young.”