Anyone familiar with the films of acclaimed Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien may be surprised that his new film is a martial arts movie. However, the director’s deeply thoughtful style, rich in mise-en-scène and quiet in pace, is on full display in The Assassin. Also, the wuxia pian genre, translated as “martial chivalry,” happens to be very close to Hou’s heart, as he grew up reading wuxia stories and watching film adaptations in theaters as a child.
Speaking via phone and through a translator, Hou explained how, with The Assassin, he sought to produce a wuxia film that felt grounded in reality. It’s an idea that has long informed the director’s movies, from going with the weather during filming to working with non-actors to historical accuracy. One of the first wuxia authors he scratched off his mental list was Jin Yong. “The author Jin Yong, who’s a very famous wuxia novelist in Asia, many of these stories have been adapted into films,” he says. “They are very popular, but that sort of work is more fantastical in nature.”
Instead of looking for wuxia stories with fantasy elements, he went to a volume of short stories from the Tang Dynasty. He reveals that the plot of The Assassin is based on a short story called “Nie Yinniang,” a reference to the name of the titular assassin, who is played in his film by the marvelous Shu Qi, a regular in his recent films. He says the story takes place during the later years of the Tang Dynasty and includes references to real people of the era and stays true to its history. The 68-year-old Hou became familiar with the story of Yinniang in college, but the decision to shoot the film came to him later, while he was chairing the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival in Taiwan, sometime in 2007. The story is about a female assassin trained by a nun who used to be a princess, who abducted Yinniang when she was 10. When Yiniang fails a mission by showing mercy, the nun tasks her to kill the cousin she was once betrothed to and still has feelings for.
Though all of this is as realistic as it might get during the decline of the Tang Dynasty, the film still offers leaps into the mystical, which was still very important to the belief system of people during this time, around the 9th century A.D. Asked about the “magical” aspects of the film, including a scene that features a bushy-browed and bearded wizard called Kong Kong’er, Hou explains that scene also comes from history in that it reflects the Taoist beliefs of the Chinese at the time.
“You can find things in ancient Taoist legend that talk about how these powerful, mighty Taoist practitioners. They could create soldiers out of mere paper, like in the movie,” he explains. “They could literally have a whole army of soldiers just by constructing paper. Those were the kind of things you would read about in Taoist legend. It’s obviously kind of exaggerated. In fact, in the original source material of Yinniang there are also parts of the story that talk about, for example, how a magician could transform into a red flag and how Jing Jing’er, which is the masked assassin in the film, how that woman formed into a white flag.”
Though you will not see all of this magic in The Assassin, Hou says the references to Taoism allows for a layer of character development that speaks to an honest portrayal of the era. “All these things are really fantastical and exaggerated,” he admits, “so obviously I didn’t really want to go that far. I think that’d be too much, but these little things, like these magical touches, concerning paper figures, and these basic Taoist practices, this is closer to the Taoist essence and closer to what a lot of people had described in Taoist traditions. I thought this is something that would be more acceptable, so to speak, so I decided to have stuff like that in the movie.”
Plus, he liked the symbolism that arises from a scene with Kong Kong’er creating a paper figure that conjures a shadowy figure that enters a palace to do the wizard’s nefarious will. Hou says,“In the movie, in order for the paper figure to work, he was putting water [on it]. All these things, the preoccupation with water and the flow of water, these are all things that are part of the ancient Taoist tradition, so I thought it was interesting, so I wanted to utilize that.”
On another level, there is the art of the Tang Dynasty. For instance, music is key to the film. In some scenes the music feels like a part of the scenery. As a matter of fact, it sort of is. Take the film’s percussive score. Hou says drums were part of the ritual of city life in the Tang era. There were certain patterns played in imperial courts at sunrise and sunset to tell people when it was time for work and time for rest. These musical moments both serve to highlight the film’s drama but also speak to the atmosphere of the era, once again going back to Hou’s interest in historical accuracy.
“The music that you hear in the film, everything up until the very end, they’re mostly my composer Lim Giong,” Hou says. “The music that you hear in the film is very true to the period. He did a lot of research. He went out of his way to do these things and created music true to the era, true to what the film is about.”
However, at the end of the movie, the music sounds almost electronic. It’s a moment that captures Yinniang’s transformation at film’s end with incredible poignancy, highlighted by Hou’s choice of music. “That song that you hear at the end of the film is actually not from the Tang Dynasty,” Hou reveals. “It’s a piece of music that was actually quite popular in Europe a few years ago [2006 by a group called Bagad Men Ha Tan] … that particular song is actually a collaboration between an African drumming troupe — a team of 40 some people — and a French composer, and this is a particular piece of music that they created together, fairly recently, so it’s actually a piece of music that I came across during the editing process. When I heard it, for some reason I just liked it. There was just something about it that appealed to me, and when I came across that, I decided it would be appropriate to put this at the end of the movie.”
By now, you get a feeling that Hou, this legendary filmmaker beloved by film critics and admired by many Asian filmmakers from other Taiwanese filmmakers like Edward Yang and Tsai Ming Liang to even Japanese filmmakers like Hirokazu Kore-eda, follows an instinctive feeling when making his movies. One of the most impressive features of his work also involves minimal action. I tell him that he seems to know exactly how long to hold a wide shot to create a pleasing effect on the viewer. He replies, “I make those sort of decisions during the editing process. It’s not something I previously conceive. It’s just something I decide during the editing process. In terms of why I did what I did, it’s a matter of personal aesthetics, personal instinct, personal intuition. It’s not something I analyze and would be able to explain clearly. It’s a matter of feeling. Feeling that somehow this particular pacing is just right, somehow this particular cutting just feels right, and it’s just something I feel just works for me intuitively, in terms of my own personal preference.”
You can read more of my conversation with Hou in another article based on this interview in the Miami New Times where we talk more about his basis of the story in history, his attraction to wuxia and working with the film’s lead actress … despite her fear of heights (Note: Don’t be alarmed that in the New Times article I refer to Hou on second reference by his personal name, Hsiao-hsien. That’s their style):
The Assassin will have its Florida premiere this Sunday, Oct. 25, during Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival’s weekend-long premieres event, GEMS, at the Tower Theater in Miami (get your ticket here). The film only recently opened in New York and Los Angeles. It will continue to expand across the U.S. and Canada through December. It opens for its premiere Miami theatrical run at the Miami Beach Cinematheque on Thursday, Oct. 29. It continues its run theatrically in Miami the following day at Tower Theater and up north in Broward County at Cinema Paradiso Hollywood. For dates in other cities, visit this link. The GEMS festival hosted a preview screening for the purpose of this interview. All images courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment.