Back with his first film in eight years, legendary director Hou Hsiao-Hsien wowed Cannes this year, winning the Best Director prize, with his awe-inspiring THE ASSASSIN. Set in ninth-century China, the protagonist is Nie, a young woman who was abducted in childhood and trained in the martial arts. After years of exile, she returns home a skilled assassin with orders to kill her husband-to-be. She must confront her parents, her memories, and her long-repressed feelings in a choice to sacrifice the man she loves or break forever with the sacred way of the assassins. Writing in the New York Times, Manohla Dargis called THE ASSASSIN “a staggeringly lovely period film…filled with palace intrigue, expressive silences, flowing curtains, whispering trees and some of the most ravishingly beautiful images to have graced this festival.”
We are honored to announce that Mr. Hou will participate in Q&A’s after the following screenings of his new film THE ASSASSIN: Friday, October 16th after the 7 PM show and Saturday, October 17th after the 4:20 PM show at the Fine Arts in Beverly Hills; Saturday, October 17th after the 7:10 PM show at the Playhouse 7 in Pasadena.
Mr. Hou recently sat for an interview about his film:
You’ve set your film in ninth century China, towards the end of the Tang Dynasty (618-907AD). It’s a period known for its short fictions, known as chuanqi, and I wonder if you took those as your inspiration?
I’ve known and loved the Tang Dynasty chuanqi since my high school and college days, and I’ve long dreamed of filming them. THE ASSASSIN is directly inspired by one of them, titled Nie Yinniang. You could say that I took the basic dramatic idea from it. The literature of the period is shot through with details of everyday life; you could call it ‘realist’ in that sense. But I needed more than that for the film, so I spent a long time reading accounts and histories of that period to familiarize myself with the ways people ate, dressed and so on. I was attentive to the smallest details. For example, there were different ways of taking a bath, depending on whether you were a wealthy merchant, a high official or a peasant. I also looked into the story’s political context in some detail. It was a chaotic period when the omnipotence of the Tang Court was threatened by provincial governors who challenged the authority of the Tang Emperor; some provinces even tried to secede from the empire by force. Paradoxically, these rebellious provinces with their military garrisons had been created by the Tang emperors themselves to protect the empire from external threats. After a series of provincial uprisings in the final years of the ninth century, the Tang Dynasty fell in 907, and its empire broke apart. I just wish I’d been able to Skype the Tang Dynasty directly, so that I could have made the film a great deal closer to the historical truth.
Embedded in the film is a key story about a solitary bluebird, which fails to sing or dance until a mirror is placed beside its cage. Did you take that, too, from Tang literature?
Yes, it’s a very well-known story in China. You can find versions of it throughout Tang literature; it recurs so often that the words “mirror” and “bluebird” become virtual synonyms.
THE ASSASSIN is a wuxia film, punctuated with scenes of martial combat. The genre has long been a staple of Chinese cinema, but it’s your first wuxia film…
It’s the result of a long journey to maturity. When I was a kid, in the Taiwan of the 1950s, my school library had lots of so-called wuxia novels. I loved them, and read them all. I also got through the translations of fantastic stories from abroad; I particularly remember novels by Jules Verne. Of course there were also the wuxia films from Hong Kong, known in the west as kung fu and swordplay movies. I discovered them when I was very young, and went crazy for them. I wanted to try my hand at the genre one day – but in the realist vein which suits my temperament. It’s not really my style to have fighters flying through the air or doing pirouettes on the ceiling; that’s not my way, and I couldn’t do it. I prefer to keep my feet on the ground. The fight scenes in THE ASSASSIN refer to those generic traditions, but they are certainly not the core of the drama. All else aside, I have to think about my actors. Even with protective padding and other safety precautions, even using wooden swords, such scenes are necessarily violent. Shu Qi, my lead actress, came out of filming the action scenes covered with bruises. Actually, the biggest influences on me were Japanese samurai films by Kurosawa and others, where what really matters are the philosophies that go with the strange business of being a samurai and not the action scenes themselves, which are merely a means to an end and basically anecdotal.
Why does THE ASSASSIN open in black-and-white?