Miami Film Festival

GEMS 2015: Director Hou Hsiao-Hsien on The Assassin: “It’s Real People, Real Historical Facts"

It has been eight years since Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s last movie, The Flight of the Red Balloon. Though that film was told through the perspective of a Chinese student living in Paris, his return to filmmaking couldn’t be more heavily rooted in Chinese culture with an intimate wuxia story from the Tang Dynasty (around the 9th century A.D.). The story follows an assassin tasked with killing her cousin, a governor in Weibo Province. Though it features some tightly choreographed action sequences, Hsiao-hsien, known for a meditative style of filmmaking, focuses on the internal conflict of the titular character, played by actress Shu Qi.

His return to filmmaking, mostly delayed due to his taking the role of chair at the Taipei Film Festival and the Golden Horse Film Festival, has been warmly received on the world cinema stage. Hsiao-hsien won the best director prize earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival, where The Assassin had its world premiere. Now, the film arrives in Miami as part of Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival event, GEMS.

Though it sounds like a very different genre film for a director who prefers intimate internal conflicts over flashy fight scenes, speaking via phone through a translator, he admits that he has wanted to make a wuxia movie even before he directed his first film in 1980. “I read a lot of martial art and wuxia novels as a kid,” he says. "It's something I've always been fascinated with, something I've always been interested in doing."

He first read the story of Nie Yinniang, the titular assassin in his film, back in college. While serving as chairman of the Golden Horse Film Festival in 2007, he decided her story would provide the basis of his next film. He said the idea came to mind when he thought about how the more popular wuxia stories felt too fantastical for his taste. “I decided that I wanted to do something that’s more realistic,” he says, “and this is when the story of Yinniang came back to mind because it is a movie that’s grounded in reality, in history, and I thought this is a story that will be well suited for my temperament.”

Known for a quiet, patient style of cinema, Hsiao-hsien said he had to wait before he could tackle a period era martial arts film. “It's the sort of movie that would require a lot of resources, requires a lot of skills. You would need to work with a stunt team, action choreographers. It was something that was physically quite complicated.”

Beyond that, Hsiao-hsien spent a lot of time making sure his film would be historically accurate. “The original story that the film is based, that itself is rooted in historical fact, even though the story itself is fictional,” he notes. “It’s real people, real historical facts, actual things that are happening in the Tang Dynasty.”

The struggles for power between characters are often spelled out in scenes of dialogue. But, more than anything, the audience will be drawn to the film’s action scenes. Though these scenes unfold quickly and are scattered sparsely throughout the movie, they always speak to the impressive fighting skills of Yinniang. But don’t expect to see Qi in any scene typical of wuxia films where fighters hang out in tree tops. The director offers a laugh before recalling trying to shoot such a scene with Qi.

“In the original opening of the movie, there is a scene involving Yinniang standing and waiting on top of a tree and swooping down from the tree in order to complete an assignment to assassinate someone, but what [Shu Qi] didn’t tell me is that she’s actually afraid of heights, so when we tried filming this scene, we couldn’t get it right because she would just scream when we did this.”

He says it speaks to her determination as an actress. “Obviously, I knew what she was thinking because she wanted to do a good job. In her mind she just wanted to take her work seriously, so she felt like maybe this was a type of fear that she could overcome, so I understand completely why she did it, and we ended up not being able to start with this scene. We just couldn’t film it. She was just too afraid of heights. Even that alone gives you a glimpse into her personality and how she really takes everything very seriously and justly. So overall, I just think she’s a terrific person, and when the story of Yinniang came along, when I was thinking about who to cast, there was very little question in my mind that she would be the person.”

The Assassin screens Sunday, October 25, at 2:45 p.m. at MDC's Tower Theater, 1508 SW Eighth St., Miami. Tickets $13;

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Hans Morgenstern has contributed to Miami New Times for too many decades, but he's grown to love Miami's arts and culture scene because of it. He is the chair of the Florida Film Critics Circle, and most of his film criticism can be found on Independent Ethos ( if not in New Times.