Cannes Best Director Winner On His First Martial Arts Film, The Future Of Movies

It had been eight years since director Hou Hsiao-hsien last released a feature-length film until This Assassin this year, but fans of the Taiwanese master will likely find that the wait was worth it. Serving as a leader for both the Taipei Film Festival and the Golden Horse Film Festival (the Chinese equivalent of the Oscars of which The Assassin, by the way, has eleven nominations), the de facto cultural ambassador of the island nation was simply too busy to find the time to make his follow-up to Flight Of The Red Balloon (2007) until recently.

When it finally seemed that his martial arts epic had finally taken off, questions lingered as to how the project would actually unfold. How would Hou—who gained international recognition for autobiographical meditations on Taiwan's 20th century history like A City Of Sadness (1989) and The Boys From Fengkuei (1983)—tackle the material? Wuxia, the martial arts genre known for its swordplay and being set in the antiquity, is one of the most familiar genres in Chinese film. But for a director whose work is known for its elliptical narratives, long takes, and abstract approach, it was an odd match. Thankfully, the result is one of the year's best films and one of the best in his decades-spanning career—it also netted him the Best Director award at this year's Cannes Film Festival.

In The Assassin, Shu Qi plays Nie Yinniang, a highly skilled assassin in the Tang Dynasty who's tasked with killing the governor of a semi-autonomous province (Chang Chen), a man to whom she was once betrothed. Hou often stresses that he frequently forgoes rehearsals or much directing of his actors before filming, preferring to keep them loose to achieve the realism he strives for. But for a wuxia film, fight choreography and preparation is a necessity, and that presented its own challenges with the cast of The Assassin. "The main issue was that two of our main actresses, Shu Qi and Zhou Yun, were not professionally trained martial artists," the director told LAist at a recent roundtable discussion. "We would just shoot everything in bits and pieces."

Otherwise, it was business as usual on the set. "[Shu Qi and Chang Chen] read the script and they figured it out on their own," he said of the chemistry between his two leads. He had previously worked with both in Three Times (2005) when they the two played lovers across three separate time eras. "They never had any questions for me."

Although Hou was able to shoot The Assassin and its gorgeous landscapes and luscious interiors in his preferred format of 35mm, he acknowledged that the technology had drastically changed since he returned to filmmaking. For his next project he's considering experimenting with digital cameras. "The language of visual expression might change," he said of the technology, which would allow the filmmaker more manipulation of the image and expand what he felt was idiosyncratic and expressive filmmaking. "There's a lot of flexibility and freedom. The possibilities are very interesting."

And even though this digitization means the the movie-going experience has become more individual, with home viewing and mobile devices, Hou feels that the technology also provides the means to bring the audiences back into movie theaters. "Filmmakers want to make sure films are communal experiences, that these are events," he said. "I think it's possible that these films become so advanced and so unique that you have to experience them in a theater."

Translations provided by Eugene Suen.

The Assassin opens this Friday in New York (at IFC Center and Film Society Of Lincoln Center) and Los Angeles (at Laemmle Playhouse 7 in Pasadena and Laemmle Ahrya Fine Arts in Beverly Hills). Hou Hsiao-hsien will be in-person for Q&As this Friday and Saturday in Los Angeles. Click here for more information on release dates across the country.