Celebrated Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s latest masterwork is a period movie set during the Tang Dynasty in China in the ninth century. In The Assassin, a highly skilled female killer, played by regular Hou collaborator Shu Qi, is tasked with killing her cousin (another Hou regular, Chang Chen). The Assassin marks Hou’s first foray into the wuxia genre, or the martial arts movie, and was completed in 2015 after a lengthy production process. The Assassin won the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival, where the director has been previously feted many times in the past.
The Assassin is a quiet visual treat. The fight sequences eschew computer-generated gimmickry, while the stunning landscapes and sumptuous yet subtle art and production design and costumes are displayed through a series of tableaux. The carefully observed characters, long takes, and overall elliptical narrative are typical of Hou’s oeuvre, which includes A Time To Live, A Time To Die, Flowers of Shanghai, Three Times, Cafe Lumiere, and Flight of the Red Balloon.
Two of Hou’s closest collaborators are women: T’ien-wen Chu, who works on his scripts, and Wen-Ying Huang, who has designed sets and apparel for several of his best-known films. The 51-year-old production and costume designer was in Mumbai at the Jio MAMI festival to present The Assassin. In an interview, she spoke about the process that goes into the making of the average Hou production and the movie’s Indian connection.
“The research on The Assassin was a long process. I went to several countries, including India, where I sourced fabric and visited temples in 2009 to get a sense of the design. I wanted to get a sense of the ancient Tang Dynasty, which had a lot of Indian influences. I also visited Uzbekistan, which was on the silk route.
The Assassin has three main colour schemes, gold, black and red. I was trying to be faithful to the period – for instance, women of the upper classes in those years would tie up their hair. It had to be glamourous, but very quiet too.
The interior scenes were shot on sets at two huge buildings in Taipei. Hou Hsiao-hsien hates sound stages, he likes natural light and the wind. The outdoor locations included mainland China, inner Mongolia, Japan and the mountainside in Taiwan.
We used mainly silk and wool for the costumes. I bought a lot of fabric from Rajasthan, Chennai, Korea and Japan. When I was in Jaipur and Udaipur, I would get lost at times and feel that I am in ancient times.
I have been working with Hou Hsiao-hsien for 22 years since 1994, starting with Good Men, Good Women. I have also worked on Goodbye South, Goodbye, Flowers of Shanghai, Millennium Mambo, Three Times, Flight of the Red Balloon and The Assassin. I recently worked on Martin Scorsese’s Silence, which was shot in Taiwan.
I grew up in southern Taiwan and studied production design and costume design for the stage at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. After graduating, I moved New York City in 1993, where I lived and worked in films such as Scorsese’s Age of Innocence, where I was an assistant, and off-Broadway shows, for a few years. But I would keep visiting home.
I was in college when films by Taiwanese New Wave directors [including Hou] were being shown in cinemas. At my university, these films would be shown at special weekly screenings too. When we were young, we used to watch all kinds of films, from Japan, from all over the world. But after 1993, the local film industry got worse, and picked up only in 2007. I went back right in the middle of the downslide.
I had seen many of Hou’s films, and I wrote to him and told him I would like to work with him. He said that I should stop by when I visited Taipei next. I worked on the first few films from New York City, and moved to Taipei in 1996.
Hou is a very nice person to work with. He will narrate the story after giving us the script and he will go through every scene. He does not work with a storyboard, and he doesn’t care for it either. The creative team works closely together. Whenever we start a project, all of us – the cinematographer, his assistants, me – go together on reccees to look at the location and the lighting conditions. If we decide an interior location, I decorate the set and show it to the director and the cinematographer. We often get the actors to move in and live on the sets for a period of time. For instance, we created a wall of photographs in Three Times. We got the actors to live in the apartment for a month. I have lead actor Chang Chen regular and Polaroid cameras and asked him to take photographs and put them on the wall. If he is playing a photographer, he needs to be in character.
I also discuss the characters with the main cast – Hou told me that nobody he had worked with before had asked to talk to the actors. The final decision is a mutual one. I allow three days for the director of photography to do the lighting. There is flexibility, especially when Hou trusts you. The way he works is that he does one scene a day or sometimes once a week since he is focused on the actors. It’s a long process. We worked on The Assassin for three years.
Hou is a very nice person to work with, but aesthetically, he is very strict and demanding. It takes a lot of patience to work with him, and he is not easy to work with when there is a new person. If he trusts you, however, he can give you a lot of freedom. His main demand is for more detailing. When I have an idea that potentially costs a lot of money, he will convince the producer to pay for it.
I try to create a sense of the location. I don’t want the costumes or the set design to draw attention away from the actors. I know I need to draw a line – that was the way I was trained at Carnegie Mellon.”
(As told to Nandini Ramnath.)