Grindhouse martial arts meets art-house "slow cinema" -- that's one quick and dirty way to summarize acclaimed director Hou Hsiao-Hsien's new film, The Assassin, his first venture into the gravity-defying heroic terrain of wuxia.
Yet make no mistake: The Assassin is worlds away from your average assembly-line effort. Instead, think of other masters of world cinema and their forays into genre moviemaking -- like Stanley Kubrick stalking then elevating the pulp of Stephen King's The Shining and Andrei Tarkovsky grappling with Stanislaw Lem's outer space specters in Solaris.
Likewise, Hou -- a critical part of the "second new wave" of Taiwanese cinema and often credited with putting his country's films on the map with 1989's powerful A City of Sadness -- bends the form to the shape of his imagination rather buckling to formula demands.
After a seven-year absence from feature filmmaking, The Assassin marks the return of if not a director's killer's instincts then his indelible signature: an unmistakable sense of time marked by long takes and discreet camera movement, a feeling for naturalistic movement within the frame of very formal, arresting compositions.
So instead of flying fighters and over-the-top physical one-upmanship, we find a thinking, observing and independent-minded bladeswoman played by Hou's three-time leading lady Shu Qi. Instead of standard battlegrounds and set pieces, Hou gives us a soundscape of birdsong and breathtaking images straight out of classical Chinese landscape paintings.
For this, The Assassin earned Hou the best director award at this year's Cannes Film Festival. In San Francisco for the Mill Valley Film Festival and Taiwan Film Days earlier this month, the 68-year-old director sat down for an interview with the help of interpreter Ginger Wei.
The action in The Assassin is so unusual -- naturalistic, offhand and a seamless part of the natural landscape, as if the character is a force of nature. What did you want to accomplish with those scenes, which are usually so important in martial arts films?
I am more focused on a more realistic approach even if it's a martial arts film. With natural lights and wind, we wanted to create a different sense of space and time for the audience.
As far as fighting sequences go, I didn't want to shoot anything ridiculous. There's still gravity. You can't go against gravity. That's my basic principle. In fact when we consulted a couple of martial arts trainers, they suggested, for instance, you can have this scene where you hit a cup, the water in slow motion starts coming out of the cup, and in the meantime the assassin approaches the target and kills the target and the cup has not dropped to the floor yet. To me, that's a bit... too much.
The movie is set during the Tang Dynasty -- what were the challenges of trying to re-create a time period or was it a matter of getting to a kind of emotional truth? What did you find interesting about it?
I don't think the film portrayed precisely what the Tang Dynasty was like. Impossible.
But there is a large volume of literature written about the Tang Dynasty. We researched a great deal. I'm intrigued by many elements I came across in my own reading. There were women who were strong willed and officers who were allowed to have one wife and several concubines. Little things that I find quite interesting and also have relevance to today's society. An assassin that didn't just go blindly to assassinate kind of tells a message -- that violence is for revenge or whatever reason but it shouldn't be without solid ground or purpose. That's something I like to tell through the film.
The images of nature -- shot in Mongolia and Hubei -- were so striking. The contrast between the luxurious interior and natural exterior shots stay with you.
It was hard to find the type of scenery that I wanted in Taiwan -- it's a smaller place, so we went to Mainland China and thankfully there are still remote areas that are not so developed. For instance, there's a lake and a farmer's hut in the film -- it's all natural. It's all there. Nothing has touched it because civilization has not reached that far.
In 1988, you were called "the future of cinema" -- how do you see it unfolding today, with the many screens surrounding us. Today you can watch a movie on your phone, yet The Assassin seems like it's going in a very different direction.
I feel the digital world is here. It's inevitable, even though I shot this film with actual film.
The digital world, I think, creates more dynamics, but it will alter the way stories will be told... It creates more freedom and space for filmmakers. I think for my next project, I will attempt to use the digital method.
I think the change of media will maybe affect the movies. They have to be shorter, they have to be more simple, and they have to be quick, because people's attention span has become shorter.
It sounds like your next project will be set in contemporary times?
The next project, one in process, is about the underground water pipe network in Taipei that was left from the time of the Japanese occupation.
The Assassin opens Friday, Oct. 23, 2015 in the Bay Area.