Directors, Features, Filmmakers, Interviews, Taiwan

Hou Hsiao-Hsien interview: “Why wuxia now? Because I’m old!”

We talk to the acclaimed Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien about his first wuxia movie, The Assassin

You’d barely notice the nasty cold director Hou Hsiao-Hsien is battling, apart from the occasional hacking cough. Topped up on medication he seems on good form, and if the interview has been delayed due to him resting after lunch, he’s come back fighting. Following a conversation at the BFI Southbank the previous evening with Tony Rayns, a highlight of their season on Hou, Also Like Life, he’s interviewing all day on a brief visit to the UK following his presence at the Venice Film Festival. Hou’s cheerful and lively, if not perhaps a little mischievous for all his 68 years.

As one of the leading lights in world cinema, from being a leading member of Taiwan’s New Wave cinema movement to the present day, hou’s not just been a director, but screenwriter, actor, producer, actor and even singer. His filmography includes Millennium Mambo, Flowers Of Shanghai, The Time To Live and the Time To Die, Three Times and A City Of Sadness. But on the surface at least, his latest film The Assassin seems an unlikely inclusion as a filmmaker: a genre movie, and a wuxia one at that…

I think a lot of people were surprised by your choice to make a wuxia film, but you obviously have a great love of the genre. What brought you to it now?
Because I’m old! [Hou says in English and laughs.]

Actually I’ve been dreaming of doing one of these wuxia, but I’ve been really occupied by being the chairman of the Taipei Film Festival and Taipei Golden Horse Awards Festival. So for eight years I didn’t have any time to shoot a film. And I think it’s time because I’m old and frail – I couldn’t just wait for the right time! I’d read this dynasty novel in my first year of university. All the Tang dynasty novels are very short, like these stories are all within 1,000 words.

Previously it was very difficult to shoot a wuxia film, because of a lack of skill and technicians in Taiwan, but nowadays even though I can film this kind of genre, I didn’t want the old school kind of wuxia films where you can see the characters just flying over the roof or the wall. I wanted to demonstrate the limitation of gravity; realism is my style, so I’m still faithful to that.

“I didn’t want the old school kind of wuxia films where you can see the characters just flying over the roof or the wall. I wanted to demonstrate the limitation of gravity; realism is my style, so I’m still faithful to that.”

And as for why I choose the Tang dynasty: because I think it’s the most elegant and beautiful era in Chinese history. One good example is the silk textiles you can see in the film.

And a lot of things where taken into Japan; a lot of buildings in Japan are in Tang dynasty style, because in that period of time Japan sent a lot of monks and students to learn from China.

So I wanted to ask you about how you constructed the film, because your cinematic language is one of long takes and improvisation, and that of wuxia film adaptions is one of fast editing and fight choreography. How did you bridge these two worlds to find the pace of The Assassin?
Of course originally I would love to have done long takes for all the action scenes. Because you know none of the actors know anything about martial arts, so they don’t have those skills, which made it impossible to have a long take to show those continuous action scenes. It took a long time for them to just practice a little bit, and then shoot a little bit, and then practice the next one and shoot it. That’s how we managed to complete it [laughs].

But that makes quite an interesting energy in the film, between the long shots and the fast-paced action. Where you happy doing that?
That’s because of the limitations [laughs]. I would love to have done it as a continuous sequence [acts out the fighting complete with sound effects], but the actors just couldn’t make it happen.

Where do you think your take on wuxia fits in with the movie adaptions over the last 100 years; from the early films of the 1920s, to the lavish productions of the Shaw Brothers and King Hu’s intelligent take in the 60s, to the ‘wire-fu’ of the 80s and the increasingly baroque and over the top visions of Zhang Yimou?
I just want to squeeze in to the line and find a position, because I’ve been reading a lot of martial art novels since I was very young, like 12 years old. I thought it would be such a shame if I don’t make a film about wuxia. But actually I’m more about the Japanese wuxia films, because the samurai spirit has lasted to modern day, and that’s the real one; unlike the Chinese films, where the wuxia is all fantasy. They don’t have that kind of energy or power, because they are not real. Realism is the fundamental principle and style of my films.

Starting with A City Of Sadness and right up to The Assassin, you often take some of the most important information outside of the frame, instead of putting it at the centre of the narrative, forcing the audience to remain attentive. Why do you want to engage with audiences in this manner?
I prefer to express in a more indirect way, I think the direct way makes it more difficult to actually engage the audience. My choice in using this indirect way is actually subject to the reality. One is that the actors just can’t make it! [He smiles]. Second is that, as previously mentioned, there’s no such real world of martial arts in this society, unlike the samurai spirit where you have a real thing that still exists to this day. So you have to show it in a more indirect way.

Also, because it’s the first time I’ve shot a wuxia film, it’s not my area. So I choose this more indirect way to avoid doing something I might feel uncomfortable with, where I was not skilful enough to shoot it.

Was it enjoyable for you to be in such unfamiliar territory? Was the process invigorating or did you find it quite daunting?
I didn’t find it daunting, it’s just couldn’t find the proper team to make it happen [laughs]. In the choreography and the action scenes, I still find it not sufficient enough, not perfect enough to me. Of course I would have like to have ferocious, very exciting action sequences, it’s just now I couldn’t find the right team to do it up to the standard I request.

Also, because unlike the Japanese samurai swordsmanship skill, you still have that real reference, but in Taiwan and China you can’t find the real reference to bring it to life. So that’s the biggest difficulty.

“Originally I wanted to shoot a Japanese wuxia film. In fact Shochiku extended an invitation to me based on a Japanese short novel, and I thought I could make it better, because of that real samurai reference.”

SO the audience for The Assassin could be quite interesting, because some audiences will be attracted to the film that wouldn’t normally watch your films, but there’s also a risk that because it’s a genre movie you might alienate your existing audience. Was that a consideration when making this film?
Originally I wanted to shoot a Japanese wuxia film. In fact Shochiku extended an invitation to me based on a Japanese short novel, and I thought I could make it better, because of that real samurai reference. I think it’s easier to deal with emotion than the action scenes. I think I need to make another two films before I can make a perfect wuxia film! [laughs]

Thank you so much.
Thank you! [Hou says in English]

The Assassin screened at the 59th BFI London Film Festival 2015, and is released on UK Blu-ray, DVD and Digital formats on 23rd May 2016.

Thanks to John and Keeley and Em Foundation, StudioCanal UK, and a special thanks to eK team member Bogna Konior for helping compile the questions.

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Andrew Heskins
Founder of easternKicks.com, which he's been running since 2002. And it's all thanks to Monkey, Water Margin and those damn fantastic 80s Hong Kong action movies! Andy works as a graphic designer in London... More »
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