'The Assassin' Director on Taiwan's Oscar Entry: "I Don't Want My Films to Be Mere Fantasy"

The Assassin Still - P 2015
Courtesy of Wild Bunch

The Assassin Still - P 2015

Hou Hsiao-hsien's realistic martial arts tale centers on a young woman struggling to accomplish the mission of killing her tyrannous warlord cousin: "I don't really care that much about what people call this film."

This story first appeared in the Dec. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Based on a short story by ninth century Chinese writer Pei Xing, Hou Hsiao-hsien's The Assassin centers on a young woman struggling to accomplish the mission of kill­ing her tyrannous warlord cousin. It's a bit of a departure for the auteur, who has been a staple on the festival circuit since at least 1989, when his historical drama A City of Sadness won the Golden Lion in Venice. Hou, 68, added another fest honor to his résumé when The Assassin, which is Taiwan's submission in the Oscar race, took home the best director prize in Cannes. THR talked to Hou about why he chose to put his spin on the ven­erable martial arts genre.

Are you OK with people calling The Assassin a martial arts movie?

I don't really care that much about what people call this film. It's just that my [martial arts] film is a bit different from the others. What I want is always to make things real, with a real back­drop. I've read a lot of martial arts novels, and I grew up watching mar­tial arts films. But I don't want my films to be mere fantasy — even if they are fighting, I want them to be more normal, more earthbound.

Compared to Pei Xing's original story, you've changed a lot of things and added quite a bit of detail. Why?

In the story, you have these supernatural characters who could, for example, fly like the wind or transform themselves into a bug. I don't think these are things you could make possible or con­vincing in a film. So that was why I reverted to realism, to history. Only the first part of the plot, about Nie being taken away by a nun and trained as an assassin, follows the original story; we just came up with the rest. We looked at the ten­sions between the cen­tral royal court and the warlords back then, citing a lot of references from historical annals.

Why did you shoot the film in the more boxy Academy aspect ratio and not widescreen?

I've always wanted to use that. The way it frames people standing upright — it's so beautiful. Shooting this in widescreen would have diverted attention from the characters.