The Assassin: The martial arts movie with a difference

The Assassin: The martial arts movie with a difference

The Assassin

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The Assassin tells the story of a general's daughter-turned-female assassin whose mission is to kill the military governors who defy the Emperor's rule

It seems almost every famous Chinese-language film director will embark on a martial arts film at some point in their career. But Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Bafta-nominated The Assassin is certainly very different from Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Zhang Yimou's Hero.

The Taiwanese director, who was named best director at Cannes Film Festival last year, is considered to be one of the most important auteurs in contemporary Chinese-language cinema.

A pioneer of Taiwanese new wave cinema which emerged in early 1980s, Hou's previous films – such as A City of Sadness and Millennium Mambo – focused on Taiwan's dark past and ever-changing present. His trademarks include lengthy takes and the use of non-professional actors.

So when The Assassin went on general release in Taiwan and mainland China last year, critics were surprised and opinions were divided.

Based on a short story by a little-known author from the 9th Century Tang Dynasty, the film tells the story of a general's daughter-turned-female assassin Nie Yinniang (played by Taiwanese actress Shu Qi). Her mission is to kill the military governors who defy the Emperor's rule.

Surprisingly, protagonist Yinniang only has nine lines for the entire movie and the lack of wire action kung fu – the most common element in Chinese martial arts films – got people talking.

"I don't know what to do with wire action scenes," said Hou, explaining his decision to go back to basics.

"People flying back and forth in the air… that needs to be done well, and you can't do any better than Superman. So I'm being realistic and used gravity – this requires that the actions be very solid."

Hou says large parts of the film were edited out in the end, leaving gaps that require viewers to work out the plot for themselves.

The director admits the decision might lead to confusion for Chinese audiences, let alone Western ones.

"It could be even more difficult for foreign audiences, but a film is a film – it doesn't matter. It's up to one's own feelings. If there are too many gaps, it would be hard to get a general release; if there aren't enough gaps, I'd feel it's too clear," he explains.

Mixing film with politics

The one topic that often appears while talking about Taiwan is its relationship with mainland China.

There are precedents for Taiwanese artists to be banned because of their opinions on independence, or simply for making an appearance at particular events.

There is also some suggestion the relationship between the governors and imperial administration depicted in The Assassin might allude to the current situation between Taiwan and mainland China – a notion Hou dismisses.

Yet, to the director's surprise, The Assassin passed the Chinese authority's censorship easily and is his first film to go on general release in the country.

When it comes to the current Taiwanese political environment and its impact on the film industry, however, Hou is frank.

"Film suffers a lot. The reason is simple – today's political achievements are not mine, and I don't need to follow you forever. If you think that because you give me some benefits, I must listen to you, then the next time when someone else will get to power what do you do? Do you want to curry favour with somebody else?

"It becomes twisted. If you regard film as a good thing, you need to think about this carefully, like in France and many other countries."

Hou is upbeat about China's film market, which has tight restrictions on the number of foreign films it will show in cinemas: "If they want to develop the film industry, they can do a great job.

"If they copy Taiwan and open the market to the US, there will be problems. I don't worry about mainland China because their film market is so good – as long as the films are solid, they will conquer more than just the Chinese market."

But with the Chinese industry rapidly growing, Hou is keen to maintain the special character of Taiwanese cinema.

"That's what I'm doing now – I'm the only one doing this, if everyone is like me, everything will be OK. You need to make good films, and lead the trend," he says.

"If everyone's number one goal is to make money, then we should learn the Hollywood way."

The Assassin in UK cinemas now.

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