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Hou Hsiao-hsien puts the ‘art’ in ‘martial arts’

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Shu Qi stars in director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s award-winning “The Assassin.” (Courtesy photo)
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It’s no small praise to say that “The Assassin” could be the best film ever made by Hou Hsiao-hsien, who, in turn, is considered one of the world’s finest living film directors.

Hou recently visited San Francisco to discuss the movie, which opens Friday. Speaking through a translator, the Taiwan-based filmmaker explains that he always wanted to make a “wuxia” (martial arts) movie, although it took many decades.

“There were several stories I was interested in making a film about,” says Hou, who grew up reading as many wuxia novels he could get his hands on.

But the timing for a movie never seemed quite right, he says. A major discovery took place in 2001 when he cast the lovely Shu Qi — known in this country for her role in “The Transporter” — in his film “Millennium Mambo.”

“I thought I would cast her in my martial arts film, but I had to think of what would work for her,” he says, adding that she began her martial arts training early on.

Years went by as Hou made other films and served as the chairman of the Taipei Film Festival and the Golden Horse Awards. Finally, after completing “Flight of the Red Balloon” in 2007, it was time.

For “The Assassin,” based on a Tang Dynasty story of love and betrayal, Hou assembled a familiar cast and crew, including actor Chang Chen (from Hou’s “Three Times”) and cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin.

“I have worked with my cinematographer as well as my set designer for over 20 years,” says Hou. “They know me. They understand what I want. When they set up, I will take a look, and maybe make some minor refinements, but we just work normally. It’s nothing very special.”

Fans know that Hou’s style is far slower, more meditative, and more contemplative than most moviegoers are used to. The action scenes in “The Assassin” move at a different pace.

“The timing is very precise,” says Hou. “They wait until the right moment comes, then they attack, and they disappear. We couldn’t do a long fight sequence because it doesn’t quite fit.”

The Cannes Jury decided that Hou knew exactly what he was doing and awarded him this year’s Best Director prize.

“The Assassin” is astoundingly beautiful, but also quite unlike any other martial arts movie ever made.

“When I make a film, I don’t think about other films,” says Hou. “As I director I feel it’s a must to have a vision. It’s how I want to frame the shots and carry out the story. It’s my style.”

IF YOU GO
The Assassin
Starring Shu Qi, Chang Chen
Written by Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Chu Tien-wen, Hsieh Hai-Meng, Zhong Acheng
Directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien
Not rated
Running time 1 hour, 47 minutes

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