Hou Hsiao-Hsien

Anyone familiar with the films of acclaimed Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien may be surprised that his new film is a martial arts movie. However, the director’s deeply thoughtful style, rich in mise-en-scène and quiet in pace, is on full display in The Assassin. Also, the wuxia pian genre, translated as “martial chivalry,” happens to be very close to Hou’s heart, as he grew up reading wuxia stories and watching film adaptations in theaters as a child.

Speaking via phone and through a translator, Hou explained how, with The Assassin, he sought to produce a wuxia film that felt grounded in reality. It’s an idea that has long informed the director’s movies, from going with the weather during filming to working with non-actors to historical accuracy. One of the first wuxia authors he scratched off his mental list was Jin Yong. “The author Jin Yong, who’s a very famous wuxia novelist in Asia, many of these stories have been adapted into films,” he says. “They are very popular, but that sort of work is more fantastical in nature.”

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Instead of looking for wuxia stories with fantasy elements, he went to a volume of short stories from the Tang Dynasty. He reveals that the plot of The Assassin is based on a short story called “Nie Yinniang,” a reference to the name of the titular assassin, who is played in his film by the marvelous Shu Qi, a regular in his recent films. He says the story takes place during the later years of the Tang Dynasty and includes references to real people of the era and stays true to its history. The 68-year-old Hou became familiar with the story of Yinniang in college, but the decision to shoot the film came to him later, while he was chairing the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival in Taiwan, sometime in 2007. The story is about a female assassin trained by a nun who used to be a princess, who abducted Yinniang when she was 10. When Yiniang fails a mission by showing mercy, the nun tasks her to kill the cousin she was once betrothed to and still has feelings for.

Though all of this is as realistic as it might get during the decline of the Tang Dynasty, the film still offers leaps into the mystical, which was still very important to the belief system of people during this time, around the 9th century A.D. Asked about the “magical” aspects of the film, including a scene that features a bushy-browed and bearded wizard called Kong Kong’er, Hou explains that scene also comes from history in that it reflects the Taoist beliefs of the Chinese at the time.

“You can find things in ancient Taoist legend that talk about how these powerful, mighty Taoist practitioners. They could create soldiers out of mere paper, like in the movie,” he explains. “They could literally have a whole army of soldiers just by constructing paper. Those were the kind of things you would read about in Taoist legend. It’s obviously kind of exaggerated. In fact, in the original source material of Yinniang there are also parts of the story that talk about, for example, how a magician could transform into a red flag and how Jing Jing’er, which is the masked assassin in the film, how that woman formed into a white flag.”

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Though you will not see all of this magic in The Assassin, Hou says the references to Taoism allows for a layer of character development that speaks to an honest portrayal of the era. “All these things are really fantastical and exaggerated,” he admits, “so obviously I didn’t really want to go that far. I think that’d be too much, but these little things, like these magical touches, concerning paper figures, and these basic Taoist practices, this is closer to the Taoist essence and closer to what a lot of people had described in Taoist traditions. I thought this is something that would be more acceptable, so to speak, so I decided to have stuff like that in the movie.”

Plus, he liked the symbolism that arises from a scene with Kong Kong’er creating a paper figure that conjures a shadowy figure that enters a palace to do the wizard’s nefarious will. Hou says,“In the movie, in order for the paper figure to work, he was putting water [on it]. All these things, the preoccupation with water and the flow of water, these are all things that are part of the ancient Taoist tradition, so I thought it was interesting, so I wanted to utilize that.”

On another level, there is the art of the Tang Dynasty. For instance, music is key to the film. In some scenes the music feels like a part of the scenery. As a matter of fact, it sort of is. Take the film’s percussive score. Hou says drums were part of the ritual of city life in the Tang era. There were certain patterns played in imperial courts at sunrise and sunset to tell people when it was time for work and time for rest. These musical moments both serve to highlight the film’s drama but also speak to the atmosphere of the era, once again going back to Hou’s interest in historical accuracy.

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“The music that you hear in the film, everything up until the very end, they’re mostly my composer Lim Giong,” Hou says. “The music that you hear in the film is very true to the period. He did a lot of research. He went out of his way to do these things and created music true to the era, true to what the film is about.”

However, at the end of the movie, the music sounds almost electronic. It’s a moment that captures Yinniang’s transformation at film’s end with incredible poignancy, highlighted by Hou’s choice of music. “That song that you hear at the end of the film is actually not from the Tang Dynasty,” Hou reveals. “It’s a piece of music that was actually quite popular in Europe a few years ago [2006 by a group called Bagad Men Ha Tan] … that particular song is actually a collaboration between an African drumming troupe — a team of 40 some people — and a French composer, and this is a particular piece of music that they created together, fairly recently, so it’s actually a piece of music that I came across during the editing process. When I heard it, for some reason I just liked it. There was just something about it that appealed to me, and when I came across that, I decided it would be appropriate to put this at the end of the movie.”

By now, you get a feeling that Hou, this legendary filmmaker beloved by film critics and admired by many Asian filmmakers from other Taiwanese filmmakers like Edward Yang and Tsai Ming Liang to even Japanese filmmakers like Hirokazu Kore-eda, follows an instinctive feeling when making his movies. One of the most impressive features of his work also involves minimal action. I tell him that he seems to know exactly how long to hold a wide shot to create a pleasing effect on the viewer. He replies, “I make those sort of decisions during the editing process. It’s not something I previously conceive. It’s just something I decide during the editing process. In terms of why I did what I did, it’s a matter of personal aesthetics, personal instinct, personal intuition. It’s not something I analyze and would be able to explain clearly. It’s a matter of feeling. Feeling that somehow this particular pacing is just right, somehow this particular cutting just feels right, and it’s just something I feel just works for me intuitively, in terms of my own personal preference.”

You can read more of my conversation with Hou in another article based on this interview in the Miami New Times where we talk more about his basis of the story in history, his attraction to wuxia and working with the film’s lead actress … despite her fear of heights (Note: Don’t be alarmed that in the New Times article I refer to Hou on second reference by his personal name, Hsiao-hsien. That’s their style):

GEMS 2015: DIRECTOR HOU HSIAO-HSIEN ON THE ASSASSIN: “IT’S REAL PEOPLE, REAL HISTORICAL FACTS”

Hans Morgenstern

The Assassin will have its Florida premiere this Sunday, Oct. 25, during Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival’s weekend-long premieres event, GEMS, at the Tower Theater in Miami (get your ticket here). The film only recently opened in New York and Los Angeles. It will continue to expand across the U.S. and Canada through December. It opens for its premiere Miami theatrical run at the Miami Beach Cinematheque on Thursday, Oct. 29. It continues its run theatrically in Miami the following day at Tower Theater and up north in Broward County at Cinema Paradiso Hollywood. For dates in other cities, visit this link. The GEMS festival hosted a preview screening for the purpose of this interview. All images courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

lfls_webWith his latest film, Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda adds another film to his oeuvre that closely examines familial relations and how the smallest efforts can resolve the most daunting of circumstances. The most difficult obstacles to overcome often arise between people who love one another the most. One of the most powerful relationships has to be that between a father and son. With Like Father, Like Son, Kore-eda brews up a situation and digs so deep it cuts to a core rarely seen in cinema, despite what some may think is a plot contrivance.

Ryota and Midori Nonomiya (Masaharu Fukuyama and Machiko Ono) are a well-off husband and wife living in a luxury condo with an only child, 6-year-old Keita (Keita Ninomiya). Ryota is a hard-working project manager involved in a plan to up-date the design of Shinjuku Station in Tokyo, the central hub of Japanese transportation. Midori is a stay-at-home mom who makes sure Keita practices his piano, despite the little boy only having the ability to muster a halting version of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” The fact that Keita never protests and finds a way to stay satisfied with his piano lessons despite his mediocrity seems to quietly annoy his parents who send him mixed messages of encouragement (the father) or offer him a choice to stop (the mother).

Using a wit that’s subtly humorous but still brews pathos, Kore-eda sets up audience sympathy for this family with a few, well-placed lines early in the film. During a quick interview by a panel at a prestigious private school for Keita, the couple says a few words about their child as he sits between them, hands politely on his knees. “He doesn’t mind losing, which is dissatisfying as a father,” says Ryota. The one compliment the father is able to say about Keita is that he is kind, noting he takes after his mother. “These days kindness is a fault,” he adds.

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Indeed there’s a coldness here. Kore-eda has a keen eye as sharp as his sense for dialogue. He highlights stark, neat architecture around this family for transitional, establishing shots. Later on, when things turn earthier, he focuses on nature and at another home important to the story’s eventual plot, defined by a sensibility that may seem chaotic but still has a warmth and easy-going atmosphere.

As any good upper middle class couple, the Nonomiyas strive to provide the best for their son. However, one day, they get a phone call from the hospital where Keita was born informing the couple to come in for news about their son. “I hope it’s nothing messy,” says the rigid father. He may be more concerned about how this might take away from his time at work and not the impact it might have on his son.

He has no idea.

Six years after the fact, it has come to the hospital’s attention that the Nonomiyas’ son had been switched at birth. The hospital has identified the couple who mistakenly got their biological son and where Keita came from. “In cases like these,” says a hospital official, “One hundred percent of families exchange.”

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It will turn out the Nonomiyas’ biological son lives with a tinkering shopkeeper in the outskirts of the small town of the hospital where Midori insisted to have their first child because that was where she was born. “This is pathetic,” comments Ryota, as they pull up to the shop with its aging storefront. Yudai Saiki (Rirî Furankî) is a man with seemingly little ambition and already has three children with his take-charge wife, Yukari (Yôko Maki). It will turn out the eldest and tallest of all the kids is Ryosuke (Isao Natsuyagi), who originally belonged to the Nonomiyas.

The families agree to have meetings and introduce the boys to one another. Yudai makes sure to collect receipts so the hospital picks up the tab for meals (and maybe indulges in a little extra). Ryota, meanwhile, plots with a lawyer to take custody of both boys. The fact that Yudai puts an end to Ryota’s plans with a slap reveals Kore-eda’s brilliant sense to present powerful “statement” moments that undo many a complex ploy, and this film has many such powerful, blink-of-an-eye moments of resonance that pitch the plot along, despite what some may think is an indulgent two-hour run time.

Ultimately, this film finds a way to tug at your heartstrings in a beautiful, stirring, multi-layered manner that speaks to undeniable bonds of family despite what might seem like a contrived situation. It’s a crowd-pleaser of a film, so it’s no wonder it won the jury prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. But it doesn’t only go for the gut. It examines a complex relationship between fathers and sons and the cycle of behavior often inherited and passed along in families. Though Ryota may sound villainous, Kore-eda, who also wrote the script, fleshes him out to make him as sympathetic as his own, saucer-eyed, innocent of a “son,” little Keita.

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Speaking to the power of the writing and pacing of the film, the majority of Like Father, Like Son’s best moments lie in short, revealing scenes that present telling behaviors of all those involved. The film opens and closes with some sentimental, spare piano melodies (in ironic contrast to Keita’s playing) and moments of over-explicating dialogue, but it’s easily forgiven, as the film goes on to explore the relationship on several, organic scenes without scoring. For much of the film, Like Father, Like Son looks deep within family, defying notions of sentimentality. Its greatness lies in the purest moments of raw, relatable family drama that pile up like neat bricks in a wall that will either unite these people or divide them.

Hans Morgenstern

Like Father, Like Son runs 121 minutes, is in Japanese with English subtitles and is not rated (nothing offensive about it). It’s now probably at a theater near you (visit the film’s official site linked at the top of this review). In South Florida, it has already opened at the Miami Beach Cinematheque and the Bill Cosford Cinema on Friday, Feb. 21. The following week, starting Feb. 28, it expands to the MDCulture Art Cinema at Koubek Theater. IFC sent me a DVD screener for the purposes of this review.

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)