‘The Assassin’ Director Hou Hsiao-Hsien Talks About His Feminist Martial Arts Film

The influential Taiwanese filmmaker's gorgeous new movie centers on a woman who kills men, doesn't speak, and barely shows any skin.

I'd just come out of my interview with the acclaimed film director Hou Hsiao-hsien when I found myself in the elevator chatting with Genevieve, the film's publicist. She had a quick, unassuming intelligence, an upper-lip piercing, great bangs, and Dr. Martens boots.

"Did you already meet the director?" she asked. "I haven't yet, but I have to! I'm obsessed with The Assassin."

Her zeal was palpable. I said that I'd also come out of the press screening in a great mood, as had the other female critic I'd overheard, who'd announced that it was her fifth viewing of Hou's film, which premiered earlier this year at Cannes, earning Hou the award for best director.

I wanted to hear what Genevieve loved about it. She talked about Hou's ability to tell an emotionally complex story using only images. She mentioned the gorgeousness of the composition. I wondered, though, if our love for the film didn't have to do with this bare-faced, black-clad heroine, this female assassin who not only didn't need rescuing but also won every fight. Who could kill men, or not kill them. Who never lost her agency. And barely had to show any skin.

Credited for inaugurating the Taiwan New Wave of Cinema along with Edward Yang and Tsai Ming-liang, Hou Hsiao-hsien is not widely recognized as a feminist filmmaker—or at least not yet. He is, rather, best known for his trademark neorealist style: static long shots, slow pacing, and a penchant for couching momentous historical conflicts within quiet domestic scenes. His films feel diaristic, crammed with the trappings of quotidian living, and the lost moments that fill up the day-to-day.

The Assassin is both stylistically and thematically consistent with the films that he has made in the past decade. Set during the Tang Dynasty, the assassin Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi) has been ordered to kill her beloved ex-fiancé. A perfect mix of the fantastical and the mundane, The Assassin shadows this well-trod wuxia (martial arts) genre while remaining faithful to the basic precepts of realism. The fighting scenes are brief, unadorned, and confined within the realm of gravity. In fact, the fighting feels almost obligatory, depicted simply because fighting is an expected part of an assassin's life.

Beginning with Millennium Mambo (2001), all of Hou's films have centered on a solitary female protagonist and her quest for love. Café Lumière (2003), Hou's contemporary take on Ozu's 1953 Tokyo Story, is about a young researcher who discovers that she is pregnant and decides to have the child alone. His next film, Three Times (2005), is set during three different time periods: the first, a story about a pool-hall girl, is set during Taiwan's martial law period; the second, about a courtesan trying to negotiate her way to freedom, is set during Taiwan's occupation by Japan. Both parts are composed almost exclusively of static interior shots framing bright, open doorways where men saunter in and out, bringing news, money, and their fleeting affections.

If not spurred by a conscious decision, this trend of strong leading women in Hou's output seemed worth investigating. I sat down last week with the director and asked him about why he has, wittingly or not, become a feminist filmmaker.

VICE: Why did you decide to make a film about a female assassin?
Hou Hsiao-hsien: Well, I first read this story when I was in college. At the time, they'd just published a collection of short stories from the Tang Dynasty. They were all about 1,000 words long. I really liked this story about Nie Yinniang, especially the opening.

Did you find the story exceptional because this assassin was a woman?
Actually, there were a lot of female assassins back then, but this one seemed really special to me. The story is about this general's daughter who gets taken away by a Daoist nun, and she leaves for many years to train to become an assassin. By the end, her training is so advanced that she has the power to turn herself into a bug and burrow into someone's stomach. I thought that was a little too outrageous. So I just used the first part of the story.

Shu Qi hardly says anything in the whole film, but you can really see the inner conflict in her expressions and her bearing. What's the cause of her suffering?
There's a scene in the film when Nie Yinniang has to listen to her mother recount the story of her past. Before she was taken away, she was supposed to marry Tian Ji'an [Chang Chen], the man she has been ordered to kill. Tian Ji'an had been her first love. When they were younger, they were always together. But, unfortunately, it wasn't meant to be. Another girl his age had to marry him because a nearby province had gathered 10,000 men and were ready to attack. Women back then had arranged marriages, and they were married off for political reasons. The princess Jiaxin herself had been married off as a kind of truce. She went off alone to a foreign land, and she was the only one of her kind. She had a duty to perform. It was very lonely for her.

"When Shu Qi finally came to meet me at the office, she had this attitude. She knew I was a big-shot director and she was just like, 'So what? Bring it on!'"

Is the story about the lonely blue phoenix about the women of that time period?
That story about the phoenix isn't inherently about women, but it just happens that these things were suffered by women. The blue phoenix story comes from an even earlier time than the Tang period. Really early. The qin luan [blue phoenix] was already synonymous with mirrors by then. The story is about this blue bird that was brought to the palace, but for three years it wouldn't make a sound. The empress advised the emperor that this kind of bird has to see its own kind. Why not put a mirror in front of it? So when they put the mirror in front of this bird, it saw its own image and began dancing and dancing. It was so excited that it danced all night. It danced until it died. When I heard this story, I thought, There's so much significance here .

Is there a reason why Shu Qi's character barely speaks? I was thinking how sad it was that after she goes away to receive her training and she gains all this power and ability, she can no longer truly communicate with those around her.
I didn't think that much about the symbolism of it, honestly. I just knew I didn't want her to talk too much. Her accent wouldn't have fit anyway, for a Tang-era film. Shu Qi was thrilled not to have words. She didn't have to memorize any script. She only says about 16 lines in the whole movie. She tells the blue phoenix story.

Why did you make the switch after Millennium Mambo to make movies with only female protagonists? Was it a conscious decision?
It's just because of Shu Qi! Before I filmed Millennium Mambo, I was doing TV work. I saw her in one of these commercial films. She was just so beautiful. She had this great aura. I found out she was from Taiwan but had gone to Hong Kong to work. I contacted the director and producer Wen Jun. I asked if I could contact her to be in the film. When she was there in Hong Kong, she had been doing weird films... like soft porn, whatever. They didn't really train her properly or see her potential. But she has such a strong personality. When she finally came to meet me at the office, she had this attitude. She knew I was a big-shot director and she was just like, "So what? Bring it on!" Not afraid of me at all.

During Millennium Mambo, we didn't really talk, we just kept the camera rolling. The movie happened really quickly. My method is... well, my takes are really long. We block the scene, but we don't rehearse. I just shoot. Like that scene where she's with her boyfriend Hao Hao, and he's doing that thing when she comes home at night: inspecting her, smelling her, touching her, stuff like that. We kept filming. Slowly you could see her getting angry. She forgot that the cameras were on, and she just grabbed a chair to hit him. We had to yell, "Cut," or she really would have hurt him!

So, up until that film, when it was finally screened at Cannes, she had never really seen herself acting before. Not like this. She knew how she acted in films with short scenes. It was all patched together. If you needed to cry, the director would film you, then cut, then here come the artificial tears, then they would do it again. But when she saw herself in Millennium Mambo, she was so shocked. After she watched it, she went back to her hotel room and just cried in front of the mirror. She was so overwhelmed. From then on, it totally changed her idea of acting and filmmaking. Her whole philosophy. So for these films, I just took her aura, her energy. She has no fear.

So that's how you became a feminist filmmaker?
[Laughing] Frankly, it's also because there aren't many good male actors. Men are a little more stupid. Sure, in City of Sadness, I had Tony Leung [Chiu-wai], who was really great. But in that film I also got the actress Xin Shufen, who had never acted before. And she was even better than him, you know? I feel that it's about instinct. Intuition. It's the major difference between the sexes. Women are more intuitive. And when they perform, they can really focus.

You start with the actors first.
Yes. Because I think it's hard to find good actors in Taiwan. They have a limit. So I often have to start with amateur actors. Xin Shufen, the actress from City of Sadness—I found her in front of a theater. She was just a student. When I saw her I was like, "Wow." She had a great presence. I was too shy to approach her, so I ended up following her all around Taipei. Finally I took out my ID card and gave it to her. "I'm Hou Hsiao-hsien. Please can you give me your phone number?" She knew my name. After that, we filmed a lot together— Dust in the Wind and a small part in A Time to Live and a Time to Die. Then she went to America to get married to her elementary-school schoolmate! I had to implore her to come back to film City of Sadness.

Does Shu Qi collaborate with you on the script? Since you're essentially creating the movie around her?
No, she doesn't. I give her some novels to read when we're filming something. For The Assassin, it was all the Tang stories and the Japanese samurai novels. I didn't talk to her about it too much. I just gave her Tsunetomo Yamamoto's books, which I think are really incredible. I gave them to Chang Chen, too. Just so they would have an idea, a feeling, about what it was to be a warrior. But I didn't tell them to act any specific way. It was just for them to enter that world.

I know you often collaborate on scripts with the novelist Chu T'ien-wen. How did you start working with her? What's the collaboration process like?
I've been working with her for a really long time. The first time was when I read one of her essays that she had written for the newspaper. I contacted her. We made The Story of Bi with that essay. Mostly we have conversations. We start with a novel, we discuss, we organize. I collect what I can use and work from that. Because it's impossible to ask literary people to write a script. I have to write the script by myself.

You write all the voiceovers and all the dialogue?
Yes. In fact, I'm an excellent scriptwriter! [Laughs] I mean, when it comes down to it, I have to control the movie. Only I know how it all fits together, scene by scene. Writers use words to construct a scene. But I'm using images. The mind makes the image. Then I have to turn the image into words for the script.

—Translated from the Mandarin by the author.

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The Assassin opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, October 16, with an expanded theatrical release to follow.