Beginning with his 1980 debut film, Cute Girl, Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien has maintained a steady filmmaking tempo across three decades, averaging almost exactly two films every three years. Between 2007’s Flight of the Red Balloon and this year’s The Assassin, which earned Hou the directing prize at the Cannes Film Festival, the eight-year wait between feature films felt unusual—and, for many, almost unbearable. Had the previously prolific Hou, like so many other brilliant minds, been ground underfoot by an increasingly homogenized “content” industry that cares for little that isn’t a superhero franchise, a binge-worthy television show, or a smartphone app?
When I sat down with the director, who was visiting New York City in the company of The Assassin’s North American premiere at the New York Film Festival, he discussed how he’d kept busy and what plans he has for the future. He also asserted a degree of pragmatism that may surprise admirers of the director, an idiosyncratic artist who often distinguishes himself with works that are as beautiful as they are abstract. To hear him speak about his process and his professionalism, you wouldn’t think he’d skipped a beat since Flight of the Red Balloon.
One of the effects you’ve pioneered is filming a scene using a fluid, gliding camera to suggest stasis. You seemed to use this effect in The Assassin only in scenes showing the daily life of royalty, suggesting that, despite the destruction caused by their power struggles, you wished to show that they had daily lives to live and enjoy, not unlike the peasants and villagers.
I’ve worked with [cinematographer] Mark Lee for a long time. Our routine is this: He comes in, sets up the shot, and doesn’t care what the director wants. [Laughs] This is a method that began with Flowers of Shanghai, to mount the camera on a dolly, and while we’re shooting a scene, we’ll push in, or pan around—whatever’s needed to capture different feelings in a scene. Mark knows and understands what I need from the camera, while I concentrate on getting the actors to do what I need to see on the screen. More often than not, what I need from the actors works perfectly in one shot. Mark and I have been doing this for so long that I don’t really like to think about the camera too much. For me, if the actors’ performances are good, than I’m happy, and if they aren’t, we go again. It could be that Mark wants to shoot hands, or feet; he knows what I want. It’s like a husband-and-wife relationship, because we don’t even talk about it anymore.
Flight of the Red Balloon takes place almost entirely inside a small apartment, but you make the space feel expansive, not claustrophobic. Much of The Assassin takes place in lavish homes, royal courts, or open country, but it’s the narrowness of the concerns of the power elite that makes these spaces feel small and cramped. Does this reflect what you had in mind?
I don’t think like that. My thought process with setting up shots, when we get on set, is that Mark and I decide what kinds of shots we want to get, but in terms of “this represents that”—it isn’t like that. It’s much more practical.
I noticed that the men of The Assassin are often loud and demonstrative, issuing commands and orders and “performing,” while it’s the women, not so loudly, who are responsible for the film’s action, and effect real change.
That’s absolutely right. That was always a part of the thought process, these two levels. The men, they issue orders, they have status, they have an audience to address, and it’s their power struggle. On the other hand, it’s the women who are left to figure out how to really struggle and negotiate to get what they want.
It’s been a really long wait since we last saw a new feature film from you. Is this the work tempo you’re settling into, or are you finding it more difficult to get projects together than you did during the 1980s and 1990s?
The eight-year gap is largely because I was asked by a close friend to work on the Taipei Film Festival, and also the Golden Horse Film Festival. When I first agreed to do these jobs, I didn’t fully comprehend the time commitment, but, at the same time, when I agree to do something, I make it a point to see it through. Plus, working with these festivals was a way for me to give back to the Taipei film community, which had given so much to me over the course of my career. And my work with the festivals was such that, anyone who follows me can pick up where I left off and manage them more easily than ever before. That degree of preparation and due diligence, I’d like to think, has been my legacy with these festivals.
Concerning The Assassin, it wasn’t difficult to raise funds; it was pretty fast, in fact. We relied on funds from Taipei, as well as investors in mainland China, Europe, and North America, to assemble a total budget of about 15 million [U.S. dollars]. In the future, from my perspective, it’s the size of the budget that will determine the kind of project I’ll take on. If it’s a large amount of money, the project will be larger in scale. If not, I’ll put something together that’s more modest.
Do you have a new project in mind, definite or otherwise?
I have an idea for my next film—nothing concrete. Taipei used to be occupied by the Japanese. At the time, much of Taipei was farmland, and in order to bring water into the city, they had to erect an elaborate irrigation system, which, when the Japanese occupation left Taiwan, rather than converting the ditches and canals to other kinds of usable land, they simply covered them up. As a result, water still flows through parts of the system under Taipei. My story would follow a pair of young people as they uncover this forgotten system. Perhaps they find a mythical creature there, or someone who’s been left there, I don’t really know yet. But what I’d want the story to do is to look into the past and present of the city of Taipei, using the story of the forgotten irrigation system as a backdrop.