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“We Just Did Long Takes Every Time”: Hou Hsiao-hsien on The Assassin

Shu Qi in The Assassin

“It is more important to observe and listen.” Despite the intense philosophical disposition many critics have discerned in the work of Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien, the 68-year-old filmmaker often seems very uninterested in the thematic choices behind his films. Instead, he often appeals to the tenet of cinematic realism. His work has been key in defining it in contemporary terms — a use of long takes and master shots with subtle changes in both camera and performances while avoiding traditional narrative exposition. More than that, Hou’s films have depended on accurate historical locations and details, all expounding on the history of his small country (City of Sadness; The Puppetmaster; Good Men, Good Women) and its present disposition (Millennium Mambo; the time-hopping Three Times).

The Assassin is certainly his most ambitious project, a wuxia epic set within the Tang Dynasty of 9th Century Mainland China. The project, which Hou spent the last five years slowly shooting and editing (a description of his workflow can be found here), won him the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival. Working with his regular DP Mark Lee, Hou sets gorgeous, lusciously shot costumes and sets lavished in succulent reds and gold colors alongside sublimely green and blue landscapes, while each long take (shot in Academy Ratio save one key sequence) uses careful changes in composition of his actors to reveal essential plot information. Hou muse Shu Qi stars as a silent princess turned assassin who, after failing to kill an important lord, returns to her homeland on a mission assigned by her mentor to murder her cousin, now an important lord.

Typically for the director, the complexities of the political allegiances become less allegorical and more emotional through the slow spooling out of exposition between reflective pauses. Hou rhythmically edits more than usual, continually realigning his characters in relation to their spaces and ideologies within the chamber set pieces. More than that, The Assassin features Hou’s most traditionally exciting sequences, using Stedicam movements into empty spaces to suggest the present of the looming assassin, followed by quick-cut action sequences with skillfully choreographed fights. These fights, however, make up a very little part of the film’s running time, which instead creates a languid space in which characters both enact and disobey their historical tradition.

During his first visit to Los Angeles in almost a decade, Hou — a reflective man who slowly articulated his calculated points in a straightforward tone — discussed his work over the phone (via translator) about creating an epic with an attention to history and its particulars. This interview has been slightly edited for clarity.

Filmmaker: You’ve spoken how on each film you try and set formal limitations for yourself, and then search for creative solutions. What limitations did you set for yourself on such an ambitious project?

Hou: I would say one of the biggest parameters I set for myself was that I wanted to ground this story in historical fact and historical reality. The one thing I would emphasize is the original source material that inspired this movie — the story of Yinniang — is a short story. It’s only about 1,000 Chinese characters. But that story itself was written in the Tang Dynasty. The author was a contemporary of that era. Most of these stories, legends, and vignettes of the Tang Dynasty were written by people of that era, and are writing about things that were true of that era. So they were referencing actual historical facts and actual historical figures. For me, it was important to follow the route of realism and be faithful to what was actually happening at the time.

So I extensively consulted historical reference materials: The Old Book of Tang, The New Book of Tang, The Zizhi Tongjian. These are extensive historical reference books. The Zizhi Tongjian, for exampl,e was written by people of that era, so it had records of all the emperors, the various dynasties — all these things were listed in these reference books. So it was a matter of looking up these people, and figuring out who they were and what they did. Sometimes, in the original short story, there’s maybe only a sentence or two referring to a particular individual. Princess Jiaxin, for example; when I found her initially there was just a one sentence description of her. But we were able to look her up in the other historical reference materials. So once you start doing this kind of research, you get a sense of who these people were and what this era was like. Then you have a parameter, and a limit in which you can create a story, so you don’t just go all over the place and become very fantastical and there’s no boundary to what you are doing. This was what I was most conscious of while making this film: to ground everything as much as I can in historical facts and reality.

Filmmaker: While many of your films have depended on funding from Europe and Japan, The Assassin is the first film you’ve made that’s proportionally dependent on financing from mainland China. This has been a trend with many of your contemporaries, like Tsai Ming-liang, Johnnie To, and Wong Kar-wai. Can you talk about your collaboration with financing in mainland China and if that influenced the direction of the project at all?

Hou: The Chinese funders who backed this movie are the ones who also produced The Grandmaster by Wong Kar-wai. The initial agreement is that they would back half the movie, so for the rest I went to places around the world: Europe, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Southeast Asia. In many countries, I worked with old partners, people I’ve previously collaborated with on projects. So in Japan, I went to Shochiku, who I’ve worked with in the past. It was not difficult to set up the arrangement, because once I sat down with these various partners and financers, I was able to get a sense of what they wanted and what I wanted to do. The discussion itself was very easy.

The Chinese company, which is called Sil-Metropole, is an official entity within Mainland China. As to whether there or not there was any financial pressure to make me do things differently — not really. I think people who work with me know the kind of movies I make and the kind of filmmaker I am. So when I made The Assassin, I went about it the way I always go about it, which is I do what is true to myself and true to my intuition, and ground everything within the philosophy of realism.

Filmmaker: The formal construction of your films has always remained one of the most crucial aspects of your filmmaking, especially in regards to using the Steadicam long takes that most you first began employing on Flowers of Shanghai with Mark Lee as your cinematographer. However, The Assassin has many more edits than usual for your work, in both the wuxia sequences but also the chamber drama sequences. What was your plan in knowing how and where to cut as opposed to setting up simply a long take? Did you plan it ahead of time or figure it out on set?

Hou: The way I did this movie with Mark Lee was the way I always work. We just did long takes every time. So the decisions you’re referring to, those were only made during the editing process. I tried to preserve the long take as much as I could, and I would only edit if it would clarify certain things, if the way the film was assembled demanded that I cut. Otherwise, I would just preserve the long take. The camera was actually only in one position, and we would only change angles or move the camera around if we somehow felt this was necessary. Otherwise, we would not bother with that.

The only things that required a lot of cutting was the action scenes. The reason why that’s the case is the actors were not professional fighters or martial artists, and not used to doing this kind of thing. So we had to break everything up into bits and pieces just to help them out. But if they were actually professional fighters and martial artists — people who are very good at this thing — I may have well as shot the action scenes in one continuous take as well. Who knows?

Filmmaker: I noted that you take both an editor and a director of editing, and that this was your first time you edited on a digital medium as opposed to a flatbed for celluloid. Can you explain the two editors and discuss how the new process changed your editing decisions?

Hou: In terms of my editing philosophy, the fact that we edited digitally made no difference on the way I would edit. I think the most important part of editing digitally is that it makes the work move much faster. Before we were editing on flatbeds and Steenbecks, but editing digitally allowed us to put the scene together much faster than we used to. The director of editing is my old editor, Liao Ching-song, but the actual editor of the film, who I was putting the film together with, is a woman named Huang Chih-chia. She was actually my script supervisor — she was the person on set documenting and recording everything. She knew the film inside out: the flow of it, the parts of it, what was in each scene and so on. And she’s also very young, and young people are very good with new technology, so she was very capable of using new technology and digital media to put the film together. So I worked with her to put the film together, and then Liao Ching-song came in to supervise the editing process for once we put a cut together for certain sequences or things we wanted to show him. If everyone felt good about it, we would move on.

Filmmaker: The colors themselves seems more artificial than in a lot of your work. I know a lot of the costumes were made with dyes you purchased in India, but even the grass seems to be painted over, and the blue of the nighttime has a saturated quality. How did you achieve the color effects here? Did you use filters or change anything through post-production?

Hou: Most of what you see in the film is what we shot. We didn’t use that many filters. What made it really arresting is we put a lot of thought into the production design, the costume, and how we wanted to light the scene. So for the interior scenes, even though they are sets that we constructed, these were all constructed outside so we could utilize natural light. For the scenes outdoors, we were using natural light, and then we would occasionally set up a light here and there to make up if it was not brought enough or we needed to make up or compensate for something. Otherwise, we were trying to use natural light as much as possible. So the indoor scenes — a lot of these night scenes that take place indoors — we lit them using low candle light, these very beautiful things that you saw. The silk curtains, the clothing, and a lot of the materials that we would have on set—these were purchased, and this silk has a very special reflective quality with a very interesting effect. It is something I wanted to use and had experimented with when making Flowers from Shanghai and shooting interior with these materials.

Filmmaker: There is a breathtaking moment at the end of the film in which Yinniang meets with Princess Jaixin on a mountainscape, and near the end of the scenes these clouds engulf the valley below. Did this moment take a long time to film to capture that perfect effect at the right moment?

Hou: What you see in the film is what happened; there’s no CGI, it’s all natural and exactly as it happened. This was shot in Hubei province in Mainland China, in an area called Shennongjia, which is about 2,700 meters above sea level. So it’s very high up and it was a very humid day, so there were cloud after cloud just coming in waves through the mountain and the valley. So honestly, it didn’t take us very long at all to shoot the scene; it was just happening like that. So we just showed up and shot it. Had it not been a very humid day without clouds, I may have still been able to utilize it. It just so happens there were clouds, it was humid, and so it was the kind of scene we ended up utilizing for the film.

Filmmaker: Many of the actors speak an older dialect of Chinese Mandarin in the film, which is much more stylized and pronounced than how dialogue usually appears in your movies. Since you usually improvise your dialogue, how did you work with actors differently when working with such a unique style of pronunciation?

Hou: The kind of dialogue you hear in the film is this Classical Chinese, which is very different from the kind of thing you hear nowadays in Chinese-speaking territories. I don’t know why this is, but Classical Chinese for me has been very easy. For some people, Classical Chinese has always been very difficult. I don’t know why. I’ve read a lot. But for me, Classical Chinese has always come very easily — I don’t have any problem reading it, or writing it, or even saying it. So this was all written in advance of the script. So with the actors it was very simple. We didn’t rehearse or practice. I just gave the script to the actors and they would just memorize the dialogue, show up on set, and do it. That’s truly the extent of our preparation.

I didn’t do anything like have the actors memorize the dialogue and then come and say it for me to hear it and test it out. We didn’t really do that. For some of the court scenes with extended dialogue, we had mainland Chinese actors, and they are very good at this. They would memorize the line in advance, show up, and say it so it was very natural and compelling. It was most different for the Taiwanese actors, because we have an accent and people talking in a way that’s different. So for them, it was more work to memorize this dialogue. But nonetheless, there were no tests or rehearsal. They memorized it, they showed up, and they did it.

Filmmaker: On a more philosophical level, many of your films have done with the relationship between marginal figures and the greater role of history. I think about City of Sadness, The Puppetmaster, the stories in Three Times…so many of the characters seem trapped by their role in history, and in part, their belief in not being able to create change so they end up enacting the fates assigned at birth In terms of history, one thinks of assassins as agents of change —but your character ultimately betrays the purpose that her higher-ups have called for her to do. I feel like this creates a more humanist vision of history based in a sentiment only hinted at in your previous film. Was there anything conscious in your decision to create a character who is able to transcend historical choices?

Hou: I would say that the Tang Dynasty was a much freer era. I would say that it’s actually hundreds of time freer than in some of the other eras I’ve depicted in my previous films. I feel the Tang Dynasty was an era of a lot of freedom — freedom of thought, of expression, and so on. Compared to Taiwan for example, which I’ve dealt with in my previous films, Taiwan is a smaller place, and it’s easier for certain political ideologies and political control to be carried over and seep through the population into ordinary people, and it just happens more easily. While back in the Tang Dynasty, there was more space; the country was bigger and there were less people. So it was a freer, and kind of a nice time actually in my estimation. I feel like nowadays, we talk about freedom of personal choice and consciousness, but a lot of times we are influenced by all sorts of ideologies that we ourselves are not aware of. While I feel that the Tang Dynasty at the time, it was a pretty surprising degree of freedom that we might not have expected.

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