Conference call with cinematic deity Hou Hsiao-Hsien

Director’s first film in eight years opens November 13

Hou Hsiao-Hsien
  • Hou Hsiao-Hsien

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Assassin 5.0

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“He’s really just a regular dude,” said Eugene, the interpreter trying to calm my nerves while waiting for cinematic deity Hou Hsiao-Hsien (Millennium Mambo, Flight of the Red Balloon) to finish his cigarette and join the conference call.

“What do I call him?” I asked. “Dude Hou doesn’t exactly roll easily off my tongue. How about Master Hou?”

“Director Hou will be fine,” Eugene laughed. “And just so you know, he has a habit of answering in paragraphs.”

The Assassin — the story of a Ninth-Century Chinese executioner (Shu Qi) ordered to kill her former husband-to-be and the director’s first film in eight years — opens Friday exclusively at Landmark Hillcrest. Do not wait for home video! The rapturous beauty of Director Hou’s textured frames will no doubt take a hit on the small screen. If you have any interest in seeing the best picture of 2015, here’s your chance.

Scott Marks: Do you remember the first film your parents took you to see and would you speak of any favorite childhood memories of going to the movies?

The Assassin

Hou Hsiao-Hsien: I don’t remember exactly which movie I saw first, because I watched a lot of movies on my own. I remember watching my family taking us to see a horror film. My brother, who is four or five years younger than me, I remember after watching the movie — I’m fairly sure it was Frankenstein. We returned home that night. Back then we lived in a Japanese-style house. We would sleep on tatami mats, which is kind of like on the floor. I remember my brother being so frightened by the film that he woke up screaming in the middle of the night. (Laughing.) That’s a very vivid memory I have from my childhood.

SM: You have said in regard to your characters, “I am always on the side of women.” My research didn’t turn up much in the way of family life. What were your parents like and how big of an impact did your mother and sister have on your siding with women?

HHH: I remember — and this is important to give you a little background — when I was growing up, for a time my father worked in Taipei. Prior to coming to Taiwan and Mainland China, he was very well-educated and had very strong academic credentials. For example, when he came to Taiwan he had to serve at one point as the executive secretary to the Mayor of Taichung, a city in central Taiwan. He also worked in Taipei for a time. But because his health was not good, his body was very weak, so we had to move to the South to the Kaohsiung area where the climate and weather would be better for his body. Because of his health, he was not as busy as he used to be. I have vivid memories of him just sitting at home.

He was always kind of distant. Rarely talked. And what he did talk about wasn’t much. So my memory of him was a figure always far removed from me. Sort of a distant figure. He passed away upon my graduation from elementary school. Because he passed away so early my mother had a very decisive influence on me. My mother, to give you some background, was an elementary school teacher when she lived in China. After we moved to Taiwan she still worked as a school teacher. She was actually a very strict person. Very much a disciplinarian in that sense. After my father passed, the three most important and influential people in my life were my mother, my sister, and my grandma. We all lived together, so the fact that I was surrounded by these three women must have had some kind of an effect on me.

“Rain and Tears” by Aphrodite’s Child

SM: I’m not sure if it’s the period or the unyielding romanticism, but for whatever reason, I find myself drawn to the opening passage of Three Times and always wanted to know where you first heard “Rain and Tears” by Aphrodite’s Child and what it was about the song that made it a perfect fit for the sequence.

[At this point, Director Hou begins to hum “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”]

SM (Laughing): Not that one. The other song you used. (Eugene and I simultaneously break into a chorus of “Rain and Tears.”)

HHH (Laughing): Of course! I don’t recall where I heard it for the first time. I’ll tell you this as an anecdote, I was always into singing. Even as a child. When I was 13, the elementary schools in Taiwan taught you how to read the musical scales. At the time, I could pick up any songbook and just by looking at the musical notes I could sing any song that I came across. I was very interested in singing and very good at it.

Chang Chen and Shu Qi in Three Times.

Chang Chen and Shu Qi in Three Times.

When I was in middle school, I spent a lot of time shooting pool and hanging out in they type of environment that you see in the first section of Three Times. That’s something I did a lot of. I was also gambling. We listened to a lot of these songs while shooting pool. I must have heard the songs at the time either in a movie of from the pool hall. Both songs made a very strong impression on me. When I made Three Times, it was very natural for me to pick those songs. They made such a strong impression on me when I first heard them that it felt right for the scene.

SM: Was the film shot in chronological order? If so, was there ever a point while watching the dailies where you thought even for a brief moment of shooting the entire picture in black-and-white?

HHH: When we began shooting I had no idea we were going to use black-and-white. Very early on I actually considered using a Bolex camera to shoot the prologue.

SM (Laughing): A hand-cranked Bolex? That old 16mm warhorse of college film classes?

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