Killer instinct: Hou Hsiao-hsien, the greatest film-maker you’ve never heard of

Megan Walsh meets the Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien as he takes on wuxia in his acclaimed film The Assassin.

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When you think of Chinese films, you are probably thinking of wuxia – ancient and mythic stories that have given rise to Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Zhang Yimou’s Hero and The Grandmaster by Wong Kar-wai. Combining martial arts (wu) and honour (xia), cinematic adaptations of the magical-realist tales of this genre not only ensure high box-office returns, but symbolise in post-socialist China a nostalgic escape to a once-discredited past. Still, it is not without its detractors at home, many of whom bemoan wuxia’s orientalist commercialisation of Chinese culture. If they are right, the formula has worked – Crouching Tiger is still the most successful foreign film in US history.

Given that lately wuxia has become almost a rite of passage for Chinese directors, it is no surprise that after 35 years of making low-key social-realist masterpieces the Taiwanese auteur Hou Hsiao-hsien is joining the fray. His latest film, The Assassin, has received praise worldwide, winning him the Best Director award at Cannes, and will be Taiwan’s official contender at the Oscars next month (the only other Taiwanese film to win is Crouching Tiger: a co-production between China, Hong Kong, the United States and Taiwan).

Not that Hou, now 68, has been overlooked. Taiwan has twice submitted his films for Academy Awards. Hailed as the founding father of the 1980s Taiwanese New Wave movement, Hou is often mentioned alongside the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami and Japan’s Yasujiro Ozu. And his lingering wide-angle shots and opaque narratives have made him a titan of world cinema – especially in France. In The Puppetmaster (1993), which splices documentary with drama, a Taiwanese puppeteer is forced to adapt to life under Japanese colonial rule. The BFI named it one of the greatest films ever made.

But The Assassin, eight years in the making, not only marks the longest gap between Hou’s films but is his biggest-budget work to date (funded equally by Taiwan and China). Of his 19 films, it is only the second to be released officially in the UK: on 8 January it was shortlisted for Best Foreign Language Film in this year’s Baftas. Is this low-key pioneer of slow cinema about to ride on the back of a lucrative genre and cross over into the action movie mainstream?

“I always wanted to make a wuxia film,” he said when I met him before The Assassin’s premiere at the London Film Festival late last year. Speaking through a Mandarin translator, he gives off an air of calm authority. “I was obsessed with these books as a boy. But I was only ever going to make it in the realist vein, which suits my personality. It’s not my style to have fighters flying through the air or doing pirouettes on the ceilings. Everything must expand from the truth. Without it, you can’t move people, you can’t ignite their imagination.”

Hou’s commitment to the truth makes The Assassin unusual for wuxia. Historical accuracy permeates the film. The actors speak in classical Chinese (the equivalent of Middle English), much to the confusion of some Chinese audiences. Knights fight with discreet knives rather than flashy swords and the sets are meticulously dressed. The Assassin could be the purest – and most hypnotically beautiful – cinematic depiction of
ancient Chinese culture ever made. And, unlike the stylised violence, long battles scenes and moral absolutism of other directors’ films in this genre, Hou’s action sequences are brief, tense and bloodless. The characters’ emotional lives, much like the position of the camera, are kept at a distance.

The plot is loosely based on a Tang dynasty tale from 809AD, in which Nie Yinniang, a female warrior played by the Taiwanese/Chinese megastar Shu Qi, is abducted as a child and initiated into the martial arts. When ordered to return to her birthplace to kill her childhood sweetheart, long-buried feelings resurface and challenge her resolve.

In 1949 Hou’s family was one of many that fled civil war on the mainland and moved to Taiwan, thinking to return some day. His autobiographical film A Time to Live, a Time to Die investigated the emotional fallout of a family being uprooted and resettling on the island. Yet despite its story drawn from old Chinese culture and locations largely on the mainland in Hubei and Inner Mongolia, The Assassin, unlike its protagonist’s journey, does not represent his own symbolic homecoming, Hou insists.

“I’ve never had a deep emotion for mainland China or impression of it,” he says. “I was carried to Taiwan as a baby. My father died when I was 12, my mother when I was 16. Since I was small, my life was about local Taiwanese life.

“It was only my parents, my grandmothers, who had this yearning to return.”

In most of his films, Taiwan takes centre stage. An island a hundred miles south-east of China, it has struggled to escape the shadow of its larger neighbour while being locked in a political cold war for seven decades. China sees the island as a rebellious province rather than a self-governing entity. The nationalist Kuomintang (KMT), who fled to the island after their defeat by the communists in 1949, imposed martial law until 1987, ruling with an iron fist for nearly 40 years. Hou’s film A City of Sadness (1989) was the first to tackle, albeit obliquely, Taiwan’s own Tiananmen, the 28 February 1947 massacre, in which the KMT violently suppressed anti-government protests, kick-starting a campaign of White Terror that killed up to 30,000 civilians that year alone. The massacre, commemorated every year on Peace Memorial Day, lends impetus to Taiwan’s independence movement.

For Hou, it is the experiences of ordinary people swept up in history’s grand narrative that give his stories their focus. The island’s ongoing crisis of existence pervades his films in recurring motifs: railways, empty platforms, people waiting for someone to arrive – or something to happen.

On 16 January, Taiwan holds a presidential election in which voters look likely to elect the leader of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, whose policies have historically favoured greater autonomy. A landslide victory could destabilise the delicately maintained status quo of recent years.

Hou will not be drawn on the China question and responds rather incredulously when asked about it. “The people, not the place, are the starting point for my movies. I don’t even start with a story, because then I’d never find the right person to be in it. It was only when I met Shu Qi,” he says, “that I knew I was going to make this film.”

His leading lady is one topic he does like to talk about. Hou gave Shu Qi her first break in his 2001 film, Millennium Mambo, and now she is one of the most bankable stars in China. Before they met, she had been caught up with gangsters in central Taiwan and had worked as a soft-porn actress in Hong Kong. “But as soon as I met her I knew she had a special character,” he said. “She’s uniquely generous but she’s also tough. She won’t bully others and she won’t let anyone bully her. She’s friendly, she’s independent and also rather solitary.”

Hou seems to see a kindred spirit in Shu Qi: at these moments, the director could be talking about himself. It’s an appropriate dynamic for wuxia, a genre in which female martial artists are a match for their male counterparts. Shu Qi delivers only a dozen lines throughout the whole film and is often just a remote figure, dressed in black, engulfed by the breathtaking landscapes. Her role, much like the director’s, is one of distant observation.

“This is not a movie about revenge,” he says. “It’s a film about loneliness.”

The central symbol is taken from the Tang story of a king who, wishing for his bluebird to sing, places a mirror in front if it, in the hope that it might mistake its reflection for a companion. But on seeing itself, the bird sings out its sorrow and dies.

The Assassin may not have the racy plotting and gravity-defying spectacle of wuxia blockbusters such as Crouching Tiger, but Hou Hsiao-hsien’s mesmeric compositions continue to present us with a sad and stoic reflection of the real thing. 

“The Assassin” is released on 22 January

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, David Bowie