Cutting and Slicing:
An Interview with Hou Hsiao-hsien
By Eric Hynes

You’d be forgiven for thinking you’d know what to expect from a Hou Hsiao-hsien movie at this point, since he has been making feature films for 35 years. Yet although there’s a surfeit of Hou’s legendarily virtuosic long takes in The Assassin, his highly anticipated variation on the wuxia film (for which Hou took home the best director prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival), those extended shots are contrasted by fight sequences of shocking rapidity, both in terms of the speed of the edit and the briefness of the sequences. The film moves differently than others by Hou, stretching and then snapping, stretching and snapping again. While he was in town for the film’s showing at the New York Film Festival, I tried asking Hou about the meaning behind this shaping and pacing, as well as about the film’s dramatically subversive sense of balance and stasis—on both formal and philosophical grounds—but he was far more comfortable talking about the practicalities of production and postproduction. Though as the following exchange attests, even when sticking to the logistics of shot-making and directing actors, Hou’s pairing of premeditation with improvisation does nothing to disprove the idea that balance is paramount to his art.

Reverse Shot: I was struck by how the film resolves, in that it doesn’t actually resolve. It’s something negotiated throughout the narrative, which seems more about balance, stasis and détente than about victory or revenge or catharsis.

Hou Hsaio-hsien: When I’m preparing for the film, I don’t think in terms of creating this world where there’s what you’re describing. My main role is that I want it to be as realistic as possible. So what I shoot on set might not be what happens in the edit. During the edit, the message might even shift a bit. So for me, it goes from script to shooting, and then the real story happens in the editing bay. That’s where what you see on the screen happens.

RS: Do you know, while you’re shooting, that things aren’t going to really take shape until you start editing?

HHH: When I shoot the script, I’m very confident that what I’m shooting on set will be similar to what’s in the finished film. But at the end of the day, where the story really develops is in the edit. I could retell the story completely in a different way. Therefore it’s really exciting for me to be at the tail end of things. I might think that it’s super precise, and that the shooting is very successful. Or I might think that it’s not quite right, that the actors are not doing what I need them to do. But it’s the edit that chooses. So I don’t have thoughts about, say, what’s going to be the last shot, which you think is the essence of the film. It’s not as macro as you think it is. This is how the film ended for me when I was editing.

RS: Are you always shooting with two cameras?

HHH: Yes.

RS: And are you doing so to maximize your options for editing?

HHH: Yes.

RS: You are justly celebrated for your long takes. Do you have an idea on set that a particular shot will be presented as a long take, and that for another you might be utilizing cuts—and therefore that second camera?

HHH: The way the cameras are set up is Mark goes in, takes a look at the surroundings, puts the dolly in, and sets up the lighting. We don’t really discuss what the shot is. I’ll just go and take a look and say it works for me. We’ve been working together for so many years that at this point we have this understanding and trust. Then once the parameters are set, sometimes a scene can be shot over several days. If it doesn’t feel right we just continue to shoot until it does. The second camera is not always used. There’s no conversation about what camera 1 and camera 2 are shooting. Sometimes they can be shooting two completely different things. It’s very rare that we use that second camera, unless the scene is totally messed up and we need to cut back into it. But I don’t recall a moment when we needed to do that on this film. These are all just one shots.

RS: They’re conceived as one shots.

HHH: Yes. And because of that, there’s no rehearsal among the actors. When they rehearse, there’s a limitation to how far that performance can go. I just allow them to feel the scene through until the very end. So there’s no time limit to the scene. It’s one shot, one scene.

RS: Yet in The Assassin, when the fight scenes happen, all of a sudden there are quicker cuts. It’s thrilling to watch, after all those long takes, a flurry of action that then swiftly ends, restoring us back to those long takes. How did you conceive of that working, rhythmically?

HHH: The reason why those fighting sequences are faster edits—particularly the scene with the two women—is that they’re not very good fighters. So I needed to break it down in terms of what they could do. We would shoot something, practice, come back and shoot the next part, practice, come back and shoot the next part. If they were better fighters, I would definitely have wanted to do a long shot. But logistically it was impossible because these women were not physically able to do what I wanted them to. So these edits that you see in the film were more of a necessity decision as opposed to a tactical one. In particular Hsieh Hsin-ying, who wore the mask; whenever she fought, to a certain extent she would get hurt, and then she would go back to Beijing and kind of mend herself. So we’d have to wait for her to come back, and it would take long periods of time to shoot. It was impossible to do a one shot with the fighting that was needed for this film.

RS: Yet in the end, I really love the rhythm of those sequences as paired with the long takes. Did you see it as a benefit in the end, even if it was out of necessity that you constructed it that way?

HHH: Since I knew that there was no way to shoot these scenes in one shot, as they were fighting I knew where these edits were going to be—I always knew which sections were going to be edited down, and which ones weren’t. I would have been really impressed if they could have done it in one shot—to me that would have been a better experience. But that’s impossible, unless they spent a year practicing, and it was part of their blood. Also their bodies were not built to be like fighters. These are actresses. For example, Shu Qi, when she was doing these fighting sequences, she couldn’t hide her facial expressions. She would kind of react like a normal person would. So I was on facial duty with her. Basically I was like, “Can you not make a face? You look nothing like an assassin when you do this.” So there were always these little things. That’s why the fast edits were really integral to these sequences. And we started these scenes a few times. Actually we shot the penultimate scene in one place, but it completely didn’t work. So it wasn’t until we got to Inner Mongolia that it worked out for us. It took some time. Hence these quick edits.

RS: This isn’t the first time you’ve worked with Shu Qi, and it’s not the first time she’s been a relatively quiet presence in your films. Is that inherent to your collaboration, or inherent to what you want to see from her, or is it organic to each project, and to each edit?

HHH: In the script, there was not much dialogue. The longest conversation is the one where her mother describes her past. But even then she doesn’t speak that much. So the way it’s written already there wasn’t a lot for her to say. But also it’s set in the Tang Dynasty, which is a very specific colloquialism, and she may not be able to speak like that. And I didn’t want to overdub her. And also because she’s from Taiwan, she might have a Taiwan accent. So these were things I didn’t want to have to deal with. So I just put her in as many silent sequences as possible. This was the extent of her ability, and so this was what I wanted to allow her to do.

RS: This is another situation where major decisions are made out of necessity. You’re making practical decisions that then have a formative effect on the experience of watching the film.

HHH: All of my movies are pretty much done in this way. And while I’m editing I’m like, “I don’t know what I’ve made.” It’s not until other people describe it and say it’s this other thing, that I’ll watch it back again and go, oh I guess I did make a film like that. A lot of times it’s not until after the fact that I understand what other people are talking about. Big or small scale, the experience is always based on necessity.