After an eight-year absence, Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien has boldly returned to feature filmmaking with The Assassin (Nie Yinniang), a Tang dynasty-set story set amidst the political conflict between the central government and provinces. Reinforcing Hou’s position as an indisputable cinematic master, the film justifiably won the Best Director prize at Cannes. From a script by Hou and his regular collaborator Chu Tien-wen, the films is complex and truth be told it requires more than one viewing to truly understand it in detail (impressed cinephiles flocked back to repeat screenings during its Cannes premiere run). As with almost all of Hou’s films, it is finely multilayered, each plot point bringing another story into the picture, while simultaneously mesmerising viewers with its sublime imagery (courtesy of another Hou regular, DP Mark Lee Ping-bin).
What sets The Assassin strikingly apart from the myriad martial arts films that cinema (and in particular Chinese cinema) has offered throughout its history, is that the bustling marital arts dynamics are barely registered. True to the director’s unique vision, it has a calmer outlook, with a philosophical and meditative atmosphere permeating the cinematic space and its rituals. At its centre are strong female characters, not least the title character (played by Hou muse Shu Qi), a femme fatale named Nie Yinniang who is very different from the usual Western conceptualisation of this type of character. She does not exist in the film to seduce but has herself been seduced in the past, a situation that informs her actions, as she is sent back to her hometown with orders to kill her old flame, who now leads the largest military region in North China.The Assassin creates its own inner logic and needs to be understood on its own terms, without resorting to comparisons with other seemingly similar works. The following is the result of a roundtable interview undertaken with Hou Hsiao-hsien at Cannes.
Can you tell me about the source of your inspiration for the movie?
I can say that tales from Tang dynasty inspire The Assassin. I know these tales from my childhood and always had dreams of making a film from them. You know, the novel is written in old Chinese, which means that one character stands for one meaning, which is why it can be short, though the story is relatively clear. The Assassin is inspired by the novel called Nie Yin Niang (聶隐娘). Nie (聶) is 3 ears (耳); Yin (隐) means hiding; Niang (娘) is a lady. Her name is Nie Yin. So in the beginning, I thought these three ears are interesting and could be made into a movie. I thought she must be an assassin, hiding somewhere in the tree, or somewhere else. Her eyes are closed and she relies completely on her hearing. In a noisy environment, if there is any sudden change, she probably knows it and would then open her eyes and come down from the tree immediately. It is originally designed in that way. Later we learnt that Shu Qi (the heroine) cannot jump. We tried many times but she screamed every time so there was no choice but to change it to the way it is now. I didn’t know at first that she was afraid of heights; we only discovered that after shooting for some time.
In general, I took the basic dramatic idea from [the tales]. I was keenly interested in the female characters from this period, an era when women often held higher positions than men. This fit well with the qualities of the actress since there is something solid which corresponds perfectly with this dynasty, which was also very colourful. The dynasty and the literature from that time comprised lots of fantastic tales. I read them extensively since I love them and realised that I wanted to make a movie about this period.
Another fascinating thing about the literature of that period is that it is filled with details of everyday life; I tend to call it realist in some sense. But that wasn’t enough for me so I spent a huge amount of time finding and reading stories and histories related to that period in order to become familiar with the way that ordinary people lived. When you make such a movie you should be very careful with details and, of course, people behaved differently based on their social and economic positions. I also researched the political context of the era in order to know more about the chaotic events that happened and how different forces threatened the Tang Emperor. I wish I were able to talk with the dynasty directly to make the movie more authentic!
Why did it take so long to produce this movie?
I’ve been busy with film festivals in Taiwan, particularly the Taipei Film Festival and the Golden Horse Film Festival. I planned to spend only two or three years on these film festivals but found it impossible to do that, and in the end I actually spent eight years on them to improve their quality; only then could I shoot the film. On the other hand, when it came to realising my project it was a difficult decision since it was hard to find financing. Furthermore, it took me a lot of time to fully understand the spirit of the history and its social and political significance; there are many conflicts in the story and I thought to myself that I should wait until I am little bit older to shoot this type of movie. However, time passes quickly and I became old so I told myself to hurry up and make this film. The actors had also become more mature and experienced so I made my decision and said it was the right time to make this film.
Can we say that this is a genre movie?
I am very familiar with kung-fu films; I watched lots of them and I particularly like Japanese samurai films because they are so realistic. At certain moments, I thought deeply of Akira Kurosawa’s films in which the real issue was the philosophy behind being a samurai, not the action scenes themselves. There are very few tricks in Japanese combat films and that inspired me to make my martial arts film in this way, which fits well with my approach towards cinema, but it might be difficult to find other people who have the same position and approach. I still want to make another martial arts movie.
The plot is very complex and a general audience might have difficulty understanding it. Are you concerned about that?
It is a question of choice about what type of approach one selects; it is very personal. If you start thinking about audience when you are making a film then you end up making another style of film. At the same time, I feel very privileged since I had $15 million for this film, which is a luxury. If someday I become poor I might not be able to shoot what I like but I always do what is dearest to my heart. I know that the lead actress would have acted in my movies even if I did not have the money. I formed a network; we know each other very well and as a group we want to make similar types of movies with the same costume and stylistic approach. However, I can make a very simple film with less money. This time it was a very costly film and if the investors cannot recoup enough money then I’m sure it will be difficult for me to find investors in the future. This film was a challenge but I find joy in experiencing such a challenge. It is resistance against Hollywood control over the market and we now live in a very different time period compared to the time of [the Taiwanese] new wave; we do not want future cinema to become poorer.
Why is the opening scene in black and white?
I did not have a clear intention for this from the beginning but I like it more this way. However, we might say that she is a woman, an assassin, and when you think of it that lack of colour suits her very well; in colour things would be very cruel. Black and white could also refer to a traditional way of making films; in this way it could refer to the protagonist’s past. As the film progresses, the movie switches to colour, which could be read as the present tense of the story.
You did not think of shooting a film with the actors or actresses flying here and there?
I cannot do that since it is not in my blood to have fighters flying through the air. If you use too much external force then it is hard for you to control and what they shoot is useless. I want real things in my film but it is difficult because the force must come out. Besides, every movement in martial arts has a specific meaning so we had to work meticulously. You should consider that the personality of the role decides the movement of the character when engaged in martial arts. Every personality has its own traits.
Can you talk about your experience working on the action scenes?
I had to think seriously about my actors so we used safety precautions and wooden swords. Still, even with these the lead actress, Shu Qi, was full of bruises after the action scenes. Generally speaking, I don’t like to be so close to actors that I can whisper in their ears. Once they come on set, I trust them and let them do the acting in their own way. I tend to accept what happens in the scene. For this, I used to go someplace where the actors could not see me, and eventually have no idea where I am.
And you worked with both actors and non-actors for this movie. The peasants are not professional actors.
The peasants in the movie are real peasants who did not change their behaviour because of the film. As soon as they were hungry, they started to eat regardless of whether we were doing something or not. I liked this since it let me capture whatever happened. Having said this, I am also very sensitive to the sense of reality in the movie. For example, during one of the intimate moments between governor Tian Ji’an and his concubine Huji we took many shots and did many takes. I didn’t do this to make the actors suffer but I wanted to feel that the scenes belonged to the actors. This was a difficult movie for the actors, especially since the actresses were not fully trained in martial arts.
How was the training process for the actors?
Shu Qi had some training before we started shooting and she expected that she had to fly and she practiced that for a couple of months but then it wasn’t what I wanted. Instead, what I wanted was the atmosphere around the characters. What was more important for me was the instinct before the action; I was not very interested in the stunts themselves.
In order to achieve my goal I asked the actors to read lots of book and watch documentaries about the time period as well as to read novels about Japanese samurai. In these novels, each individual has their own skills and specialties and that was enough to express the personality of the characters. So our actors prepared everything individually, which was important for achieving the relaxed atmosphere that we had in the end.
I would like to know more about your style, and especially the reason you prefer long shots in your work.
I always tend to use long shots since I prefer to show what is happening behind the characters, meaning the objects behind the actors, the landscapes. When you use a long shot, you can better capture reality. I am in favour of realism in movies and am against the theatricalisaion of action. I hate explanation in films, especially anything related to psychology, preferring instead that the movie help audiences to bring their own imaginations into the story. I have tested this strategy in my other movies, like Flowers of Shanghai, which is pretty long but contains only thirty shots. I think the long shot is very useful to capture duration in the movie.
And how this quest for reality impacts the editing of this movie?
I have a condition when I shoot a film. If it is not so true – and by “true” I mean that it can be borrowed – then I won’t try it. Even if I have a shot then I will not use it. So the whole shooting process often stops and starts because some adjustments must be made. When editing, if I find that some parts are unrealistic either technically or because of the actors or actresses, I will cut them. This is how I edit the film.
What location did you use for shooting?
The scenery comes from Inner Mongolia in Hubei province of northeastern China. I liked it because it has a totally imaginary quality, similar to Chinese classical paintings.
The movie has fascinating image quality and every shot looks like a painting. Do you consider yourself as a painter?
No, I don’t have much experience as a painter. I remember at school that a teacher asked us to paint a boat. I painted something very quickly and then realised that it was much faster than the others had done. Maybe you are right that I am somehow a painter. I think I might be a good painter, but I prefer to be a filmmaker.
Did you prepare this picturesque set before? Did you try to change anything during actual shooting?
For the events in the Tang Dynasty, they were usually prepared beforehand so it’s almost impossible to change because you cannot have immediate preparation and can only shoot what is already prepared. If you want to change on site, it is impossible so I can only shoot as that. If there were no preparation then I wouldn’t even think about it. If I cannot do it then I just can’t. During editing I would cut the part that is poorly filmed. Actually, we shot a lot and cut a lot since I felt that it was hard to shoot well, especially the part about the children, so I cut them.
How did you create these striking images in the film?
The images are created using many silk curtains, which were very popular during the Tang Dynasty, as well as purdahs (heavy curtains) and things like that, which are used for separation. Even for a bed, it is handled in this way. We also used many screens (byobu). All the materials are silk by nature, which the art director bought in South Korea and India. He went to select the materials in person based on his imagination for the script and one advantage of getting genuine silk materials is that it is very beautiful under the sunshine.
And what about the background like the mountains?
I shot them by using film because I don’t know how to use digital. Lee Ping-Bin, my longtime collaborating DP, and I both prefer film, though later on I found out that I had to scan all of the films into digital because everything must be finished in this format nowadays. It was very simple for me to scan 500,000 frames in the past since I just scanned, made a copy, cut, and finally printed it out. Now after scanning it is very difficult to conform because although I have finished scanning and cutting I have no numbers so I cannot conform, which is big trouble. The technician persuaded me not to do that so I used digital to cut but I then found adjusting light in the digital to be a very different kind. I tried many times but the light adjustment systems are very different and my cameraman did something that had never been tried before in Taiwan. We had attached a lot of importance to adjusting light so when this failed, we found out that there is another system which had never been used in Taiwan and after using this system, you could finally see the current effect. I don’t know how long it took using that system so I feel that digital is really not easy. After going through such a long process, we now find that the effect is even worse than before but it will change sooner or later for the better.
What is the relationship between this film and the rest of your body of work?
It is the same as my other movies since I won’t accept anything fake or false. It must first be accepted by my eyes or else it is impossible. For example, if the lighting or acting isn’t good then I won’t take it. It is not important for me whether or not this film is related to my other works since I connect them in my own way. It is kind of weird but I feel that it is fine. Basically l will approve a work only if I can accept it according to my criteria.
Finally, do you have your next project in mind?
The most difficult thing is to find financing for a project so if this film is successful and makes money then I will make another one soon but if not then you will have to wait a long time before I can make another film.
I would like to thank Jason Sun for the translation of the interview and Vendetta Films, the Australian/New Zealand distributor of The Assassin, for enabling me to take part in the interview.