I do not always have Cannes Film Festival envy, but this year I do, in spades, because Hou Hsiao-Hsien, one of my favorite directors, just premiered his new movie The Assassin there. It stars his long time muse Shu Qi. I will see anything he does.
Years ago Hou said in an interview that perhaps he is too meticulous when it comes to mise-en-scène. This clearly has not changed. On the first day the camera was not yet on the set. Overheard snippets of Hou’s extended discussions with Huang Wen-ying, Mark Lee and others, gave the impression initially that he was going to shoot an interior scene one way, then another, only by the end of the evening to lead me to believe it had changed once again. Then on the second day, the first day of actual shooting, I returned in the morning to discover that the scene was covered from yet another angle.
Throughout that morning, that single setup underwent three more metamorphoses. Hou and his colleagues tinkered with the set and props so extensively that they broke for lunch before actually shooting — this despite the actors all being on call since around 6:30 am. Not bounded by the union rules typical on a Hollywood set, Hou at times was directly involved in adjusting several minute details. Hou is as meticulous as ever.
Hou never uses storyboards or shot lists. He does not even write out dialogue beforehand for the actors. His scenes have always grown out of the specifics of a setting—usually real locations that spark his imaginative staging and lighting. His modus operandi is to then respond directly to the atmosphere he finds himself in, no matter how long that takes. Everybody who works for him seems to understand this.
No dialogue, no script, no shot list. Process-wise, he sounds just like another of my favorite directors, and one he's often grouped with, Wong Kar Wai. Their movies have many similarities, chief among them the ability to capture a mood, a sensation, the feel of a story more than the structure of it.
Is the process integral to producing that type of movie? Does agile development lead to a different type of product than, say, waterfall development? It seems obvious that it would, but the Bordwell piece is worth reading to understand the mechanics of just how.
I really hope this movie comes to TIFF this fall. Hou Hsiao-Hsien is a Taiwanese treasure.