Bright Lights Film Journal

“A Different Space and Time”: Hou Hsiao-Hsien on The Assassin (2015)

Hou on The Assassin: I don’t believe we should blindly obey masters. Nie Yinniang is ordered by her master Jiaxin (Sheu Fang-yi) to kill a high-ranking official, but – once she sees he has a child – decides not to fulfill her master’s command. That’s the important lesson that I feel today’s society can relate to.

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In much the same way that westerns as a genre (first as comics, then books, then TV, then films) have influenced my boyhood and – in some respects – kickstarted my individual cinephilia, the Chinese wuxia (“martial hero”) has influenced generations of Chinese youth. The popularity of this literary tradition concerning the adventures of martial artists in ancient China has insured its longevity in multiple media, including film, through which wuxia has achieved an international reach.

The chuan’qi, or “legendary tales,” of the Tang Dynasty (c. 600-900 A.D.) marked a specific maturation of the genre and served as prototypes for modern wuxia stories, most notably the story “Nie Yinniang,” a tale that directly impressed Taiwanese auteur Hou Hsiao-Hsien. Hou’s elegant, elliptical style of filmic storytelling lends a restrained beauty to an often overly robust genre, and accounts for the considerable acclaim his latest feature, The Assassin (2015), is receiving on the festival and theatrical circuit. It is a film that is both young and lively and mature and tempered, as only a master looking back on youth can envision.

My thanks to Karen Larsen of Larsen Associates and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office of San Francisco for helping to facilitate this interview during the screening of The Assassin at the San Francisco Film Society’s Taiwan Film Days (October 12-13, 2015). Further thanks to Ginger Wei for translative assistance.

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Michael Guillén: It’s a deep honor to speak with you today. Thank you for your time. I’m so glad you’re back!

Hou Hsiao-Hsien: [Laughs] Thank you.

I’ve just turned 62 and I understand you’re in your sixties as well, and perhaps it’s my growing older that qualifies why I’m so charmed knowing that The Assassin is a story you have wanted to tell since early in your career. Can you speak to how it feels to finally be a position to tell this story? And why now?

I’m 68 and I’m running out of time. I started reading martial arts novels when I was in elementary school, the fifth grade, but it wasn’t until my first year of college that I began reading these short stories from the Tang Dynasty, written by people from the Tang Dynasty and published at that time. I found them quite fascinating. The short story “Nie Yinniang,” especially, stuck in my head. I kept thinking that at some point I would like to make a film based on “Nie Yinniang.” As you know, I haven’t made a film in a while because I was serving as the president of the Taipei Film Festival as well as the Golden Horse Awards. That took five years of my life. I’m not getting any younger and realized that now would be the time to make this movie.

So in your freshman year at college “Nie Yinniang” – which featured an assassin princess – spoke to you. What was it about a female protagonist that spoke to your male sensibility?

The main reason was actually Shu Qi, the lead actress. The short story had stuck in my head, but I had been thinking who would be the perfect actress to play the role of Nie Yinniang? I had been thinking about that for a long time. So when I first started working with Shu Qi – and we have worked together on several other films – I knew she was the right actress. She was the best person to bring Nie Yinniang to life.

I believe that history is at its best when it is pared down to human elements that communicate across time. The Assassin accomplishes that brilliantly. It presents the Tang Dynasty to audiences in a way that feels amazingly relevant and contemporary. Can you comment on how you bring history into the current moment through your films?

Several dynasties had novels that talked about martial arts, so the Tang Dynasty is not unique in that respect; but it is the dynasty that had, perhaps, the largest volume of that kind of literature. I made the film to talk about elements that I feel are quite relevant to today’s world, such as brutality, which I feel we should control. Just because some authority tells you to go kill somebody doesn’t mean you should go and kill somebody. I don’t believe that’s the right approach, which you see in my film. I don’t believe we should blindly obey masters. Nie Yinniang is ordered by her master Jiaxin (Sheu Fang-yi) to kill a high-ranking official, but – once she sees he has a child – decides not to fulfill her master’s command. That’s the important lesson that I feel today’s society can relate to.

You’ve stated elsewhere that The Assassin concerns itself with the misplaced notion that violence can end violence, and now you say to me that one of its stated themes is the ethical insubordination of someone ordered to commit violence. Yet, I am perhaps more concerned with individuals who are not under orders to commit violence but who by way of a misguided notion of vigilante justice are committing violent acts independent of any authority. What do you hope The Assassin might accomplish to repair this damaged mindset?

I would like to stop the violence. I’m an anti-violent person. I’ve read and heard about the violence that you’re referring to in the U.S. It seems to me that this links back to U.S. policies on gun ownership. It seems that as long as you are an adult you are allowed to possess weapons. For me, that’s a difficult issue. If you have a gun sitting around, how can one control someone else’s use of that weapon? Who is to say when it is the right time or the wrong time to use that weapon? If one person has a weapon and the other doesn’t, there’s a one-upmanship. Then a heated situation gets worse and the violence spreads. But I understand this is a controversial subject in the U.S., which seems to have been started by the founding fathers of the U.S.

It is, indeed, an instance of history reaching into the contemporary moment. Now you mentioned earlier that it was in elementary school that you fell in love with wuxia literature and The Assassin is a specific adaptation of wuxia literature from the Tang Dynasty, and I’m aware that when you were a child you equally loved wuxia films. I was charmed by the story of your putting two torn ticket stubs together to gain entrance to these films. Are there any wuxia films set in the time of the Tang Dynasty that rise to the surface as direct influences on your own approach to the genre?

There’s not any particular wuxia film that I can credit or attribute to influencing my film. I have watched such a large quantity of movies and read much literature on martial arts, and so, for my film, it was more about focusing on the story “Nie Yinniang” with all the details I have accumulated over the years by reading and watching other films. For example, with this story the assassin used a dagger as her weapon of choice. That determined that the scenes needed to be in close proximity with the target. When Nie Yinniang is sent to assassinate Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen) – to whom as a child she had once been promised – she really wanted him to know who she was. You see scenes where they are close to each other. She does not attack him because she wants him to recognize who she is. In a way, I wanted to show that she still had amorous feelings toward him, despite it being her mission to kill him. She kept deflecting from her mission in order for him to know who she is. She even leaves a piece of jade in his room to help him identify her. They were each given that piece of jade as a promise of their future, and therein lies the film’s romance.

Which leads me to ask about your masterful use of mise en scène. You’ve noted that intimacy was important in framing these romantic scenes. And another element which impressed me was how you used silence to inform and structure your narrative flow. I’m more familiar with loud, combustive martial arts films, and so the structured use of silence in The Assassin took me somewhat by surprise. Can you talk about that?

It’s intuitive for me. I do these things subconsciously as I’ve been doing them for a while. Part of that was in how we set the film outdoors and not in the studio, primarily because we could leverage the natural wind and light, even though it’s harder to film when outdoors. I didn’t want to set up fans in a studio to simulate breezes or wind. That would have been too artificial for me. When you’re outside, you’re in a natural world, and it’s quite realistic when you absorb the elements. It creates a mood for the audience to observe and feel where they are. They take the film in as being realistic, and that was the approach we wanted to take. We didn’t want to focus too much on dialogue, talking, or plot. We wanted to create a set with an ambiance that becomes tremendous for an audience, I believe.

The audience definitely feels immersed in the world you have created. With regard to the interior shots, however, I was quite taken by your use of veiled images, of fabric moving over and away from the image, bringing subjects into and out of focus. Again, I’m sure this is intuitive for you, but I’m trying to understand its specific application, how you envisioned it to manifest it.

One of the intended results of setting our scenes outdoors was to create a different space and time for the audience. It’s a different rhythm when you’re outdoors. For instance, if the set is in a studio, you have to be more focused on the plot, on the storyline, on performance and energy levels to keep the audience attracted and engaged. I guess you could say this is my idiosyncratic approach to the film. Hollywood does its very best in regard to drama. They have the drama down to the last detail. They have the timing. Everything’s perfect to create the drama. But that’s not what I’m doing. I find my approach to be unique. I attract the audience in a different way.

I’ve long been fascinated with how films meld with painting. Your palette in The Assassin is subdued by comparison to other wuxia films I’ve seen where color adds to the violence within the film. Lurid, oversaturated color is a form of violence to me. Speak to me about the palette you chose to make this film.

The palette is largely the work of my production designer Wen-Ying Huang – I’ve worked with her for 20+ years – as well as my cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin. Once the set is staged, Mark comes in and places the candles where he would like them. Then I come in with my assistant director to see if anything needs to be adjusted. It is truly a collaborative effort to create the scene.

To answer your earlier question, silk was heavily used in this film. We secured the silk from India. During the time period of the Tang Dynasty, silk was a flourishing trade. It’s very fluid and helped to create the feeling you noted in the film. The material, the candlelight, and the outdoor setting together created the elements that made up the reality which you observed.