A Love Story Without Love: Hou Hsiao-hsien Discusses "The Assassin"

The Taiwanese master discusses cinematic and historical realism, violence in his film, love and poetry.
Daniel Kasman, Adam Cook

Hou Hsiao-hsien. Photo by Yao Hung-I.

The Assassin, Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien's first film in eight years, was one of the most sublime revelations at the Cannes Film Festival this May, where the film premiered and took home the Best Director prize. We wrote about the film, enraptured, during the festival:

"This film, decades in the making, feels like the condensation and purification of something long lived with by all involved. It is a nüxia (woman knight) story, loosely based on a Tang dynasty tale, and it is spoken in guwen, a very classical, literary style of Chinese. And yet for his lady assassin Hou has chosen his most modern of performers, Shu Qi, his pop muse from 2001's Millennium Mambo onward, and so we see the young embodiment of Taiwanese modern woman transported into a past of courtly rules and manners, etiquette and architecture binding and restrictive for all, but especially for women: wives, mistresses, nuns, and servants."

Adam Cook and I were able to email the director questions after the festival, and while he skipped many and we were unable to follow-up in order to engage in a conversation rather than a question-and-answer, we are grateful for his response. For more background on the film's mysterious story and richly evocative experience, see my report from Cannes and Adam's for Movie Mezzanine.

NOTEBOOK: Why did you and your screenwriters set this film in specifically in the 9th century? What relevance does the politics of this 9th century story have for us today?

HOU HSIAO-HSIEN: What is the modernism in this film? It is about an assassin’s awareness. Her awareness is that she can kill no one: this is the modernism. Today, we cannot kill people because of politics or any kind of reason.

NOTEBOOK: How do you balance a tension between historical and cinematic realism and the conventions both literary and cinematic of such stories?

HOU: Doing research. We had read a lot of books about Tang’s history, and some books specifically about women, clothes, and the political system in the Tang dynasty. After reading all these we started to set the locations based on the facts.

NOTEBOOK: At the time, what did the Weibo province mean to the Tang empire? Was it perceived as a threat?

HOU: In the middle age of the Tang dynasty they set military governors to protect the capital. Before the Tang, there was only administrative authority, but little by little, the Tang set military as well. A military governor has an administration and an army, which make them bigger; at that time, in its middle age, the Tang empire became weak. That was the right moment for military governors, like that of Weibo, to become stronger.  

NOTEBOOK: How unusual was it in that era for aristocrat families to "send away" their children, as they do with the assassin, Yinniang?

HOU: She has not really been sent away. In the original text, she had been kidnapped. But in the film, we made it that she was sent away to ensure that her cousin, Tian Ji’an, would be his family’s heir and have to marry the woman Yuan to keep his power. For the overall situation, Yinniang should be sent away.

NOTEBOOK: The film features a remarkable amount of differing visual looks, starting black and white, changing aspect ratio, the image texture varying from the gloss of the interiors to the grainy exteriors, not to mention how the fight scenes also look different. Can you talk about your and Mark Lee Ping-bin's visual strategy and the different textures you use?

HOU: It really depends on the set. I like the 1.33 aspect ratio, the standard; it is great to film people and the landscape with this format. And in the flashback sequence, I use an 1.85. It depends on what I feel for a sequence, I don’t have any specific reason.

NOTEBOOK: For a character with so little dialog, Yinniang comes off as rich and complex. In the prologue, she already appears compassionate and perhaps trends towards pacifism. Can you talk about how you see her internal conflict—the choices she is faced with?

HOU: Her internal conflict is the process of awareness. Her nature is that she cannot kill anyone.

NOTEBOOK: Is there an additional or different moral component to filming violence? Can you talk about the choice to make the violence in the film bloodless, despite the interiors being drenched in crimson?

HOU: I don’t have moral thoughts. In other fighting scenes in other films, I just feel too much blood. Actually, in a high speed action, you can see nothing, no blood. That is what I felt; for this reason, I didn’t want to put a lot of blood. The human vision cannot capture the high speed blood.

NOTEBOOK: The sound design in the film incredible, especially in the evocation of sounds outside of interior spaces—birds, wind, nature. How did you work with your sound designer on this picture?

HOU: At the beginning, I wanted Yinniang closing her eyes, hiding up on a tree; when comes the person she wants to kill, she will jump down and kill that person quickly. So I wanted to have those sounds of nature. But in the end, Shu Qi has a little acrophobia, every time she had to jump from high, she would yelling and screaming—so I gave up this original idea. Those sound are recording on the set and also made in the studio.

NOTEBOOK: To a certain extent your production design seems to emphasize historical accuracy and visual beauty, but the "feel" of these environments seem just as, if not more, important. What qualities of an environment are important for you to define? What role does setting play for you in storytelling, and specifically in this movie?

HOU: I have to create the real atmosphere. Light and everything, including the wind. We built two mansions in a studio, outside and inside. So the light and the wind are from nature. The white curtain will open or close, very natural and not controlled by us.

NOTEBOOK: One of the most beautiful, remarkable scenes in this film, or any other for that matter, is when Yianniang spies Tian and a woman talking, the curtains and out of focus candles often occluding or otherwise blurring our vision. Can you discuss this choice in mise en scène?

HOU: I don’t really have any mise en scène. I think that my actors are doing the mise en scène. Each sequence, I will set a situation for my actors, and leave them a space to move. They do what they want in this space, their acting just make the roles alive, they have to go into the roles, the only thing I do is to capture.

NOTEBOOK: We know both marital arts literature and cinema are influential on The Assassin, but we wonder to what extent poetry is as well.

HOU: I feel that the image is quite like a poem. The introduction, elucidation of the theme, transition to another viewpoint and summing up; the four steps in the composition of a film and also in a poem. Changes in a construction, with emotions and messages.

NOTEBOOK: Is The Assassin a love story?

HOU: Basically, this film is a love story. My love story is...one without love. Love is always with obstacles, love is not what we imagine. It is very rare that a couple could go through this and get married. If love was easy, then there would be neither literature nor drama—nor cinema.

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