Interview: Director Su Chao-Bin, the Reign of Assassins

Nearly four years after making the award winning horror film Silk, Taiwanese director Su Chao-Bin returns with a fantastic swordplay film called the Reign of Assassins. With the support of producers John Woo and Terence Chang, Su manages to weave an elaborate story about a desperate search for the mummified remains of the famed Buddhist monk Bodhidharma. The film is filled to the brim with plot twists, secret identities, and physics bending martial arts. Similar to his other films, the director skillfully blends many different genres such as action, romance, and comedy.

GR: You have taken a highly unusual path to a film career. You started out as a high tech engineer who became a screen writer and a director. Can you describe your path to cinema?

Su Chao-Bin: First of all, I’m very lucky. At the time, I had a masters [degree] in computer science, and Taiwanese guys have to take two years of military service. When I left the army, I was already twenty-six or twenty-seven that was already pretty old. I also worked in the high tech industry for a year. At the time, my life looked the same as my years in school. So, I thought it was time to make a change. Movies were still a dream… a far and away distant dream.

That’s why I consider myself lucky because at that moment I applied for a website job at Music Television (MTV) in Taipei. It was a pretty popular website. They hired me because I drew a comic introducing myself and sent it along with my resume. In the end, they didn’t hire me as an engineer but as a copywriter. The opportunity put me in touch with the business. Music Television still isn’t the movies, but the television business. After three years, I felt a little bored with TV.

So, I decided to apply for school in the states and continue my studies. I applied for a program called interactive cinema in the Media Lab of MIT. That’s the only way I could get connected to the cinema. Just before leaving for the states, the president of MTV Taiwan called me. He said, “I have a friend who is planning to shoot a movie and he’s looking for a screenplay. Do you think you can write it.” I said, “of course, I can write it.” But I’ve never written a screenplay before that moment. So, I locked myself in my apartment for two weeks and came out with the screenplay for The Cabbie. It was made, and that’s how I started my career. That’s why I say that I’m very lucky.

GR: At the time your career started, Taiwan cinema was mainly limited to small art house films. Did you fit into that environment?

SCB: At that time, the Taiwanese film industry was at their lowest point. The number one box office for a local film was one million Taiwan dollars. That’s roughly like thirty thousand US dollars. The business, at that time, was really bad. Maybe they were looking for new voices. When the Cabbie came out, I got a lot of attention especially from Sony/Columbia. They hired me to write Double Vision. Actually it was a spec screenplay. They liked the story and said, “You can do it.” That’s how I got further into the business.

GR: Where you always interested in film or was it just an outgrowth of your television experience?

SCB: I’ve always been interested in cinema, but back then being a director was still a dream. It seemed impossible to make it a reality. At that time, I never imagined that I would be a director. It just happened.

GR: You started as a screenwriter. Do you prefer your role as a writer or director?

SCB: It’s very different from being a writer than a director. As a writer, basically no one can help you. It won’t speed up your writing if you bought a new computer system. It doesn’t work like that… It’s doesn’t matter if you have four hands. Nobody can help you.

But, as a director, if you don’t know what to do, you can always ask for someone’s opinion on the set. For example, you can ask the photographer, “What do you think about my next shot?” If you are not sure how the scene should be played out, you can ask the actor, “What do you think about the character? How do you think he would react in this kind of situation?” You can always get help from the crew. You need to talk to them. That’s so different. But, as a writer, sometimes you don’t need to talk. You don’t need to communicate. As a director, you have to keep talking, and you have to keep communicating with people.

So, for me, I like both. If I continued only as writer, I would be dead by now because it’s such a hard job.

GR: You mention getting help and working with others on set. On the Reign of Assassins, you collaborated with John Woo. How did this particular arrangement happen?

SCB: John Woo saw my last movie Silk, and I think he liked it a lot. On the first day that I met him on his set, he said, “Hey, I like your work. Let’s do a movie together.” That’s how the Reign of Assassins started.

GR: What was it like working with John Woo? Was he deeply involved in the daily shooting schedule or the post-production editing?

SCB: John was mostly a producer on this film. He did direct one thing: the scene with his daughter as one of the female assassins. Because he wanted to do it so badly, I asked, “Hey, John can you help me out.” He said, “Okay, Why not.” He came on board and directed the last scene with his daughter.

Basically he gave me very solid and strong support. He’s kind of like a walking encyclopedia of filmmaking. You know… He has so much knowledge about being a director. So whenever I have questions or face difficulties, I can always go to him and ask his opinion. I think he did a great job in supporting me for the Reign of Assassins.

GR: Was Woo on the set everyday?

SCB: He was there quite a lot. Not everyday, but quite a lot.

GR: Like B.T.S. (Better Than Sex), you’ve included a lot of humor in the Reign of Assassins . Do you think comedy is important even in your dramatic work?

SCB: I always like making comedies. If I can, I want all of my movies to be comedies or have comedic elements. I just don’t know… I love doing it.

When making a drama as a filmmaker, it’s always difficult to judge the audience’s reaction in the theater. In a comedy, you can instantly see that people are happy with your film because of their laughter. Of course it would be a disaster, when people are not laughing at a comedy. So, I don’t know. I just love adding humorous elements to my works.

GR: Do plan on doing anymore full feature comedy films?

SCB: Yes. I will definitely… It could be nonsense all the way. I want to do a movie like that.

GR: You mentioned Silk earlier. That film and the Reign of Assassins both feature very dark visuals and muted colors. Was this done intentionally to give the latter a gritty realism?

SCB: Yeah, it is. I’m kind of a logical person. If I can help it, I make sure that everything has some logic behind it. When I decided to make [Silk] about ghosts, I wanted to take a different approach to the Asian ghost movie. For instance, I asked, “Why do they have their clothes on?” I want to answer that question. I want to know why ghosts want to kill people. I don’t know. It was an experiment. I hope it works, and someone will like it. Some people told me that they expected to see a really horrific movie, but it played out like Science Fiction. It’s all an experiment.

GR: What about the colors in Reign of Assassins? Emi Wada, who is the costume designer, is primarily known for her use of bold and bright colors. In this film, she used more subdued tones. Why did you decide to go in that direction?

SCB: I told her that this movie is about ordinary people. They’re very poor and can’t afford expensive clothes. We have some parts with brighter clothing, but it’s only in the scenes with the eunuchs. I believe we decided on the tone even before we started production.

GR: Most critics describe the film as a blending of romantic comedy and swordplay. Do you think that is accurate?

SCB: [laughs] So, you’ve watched Better Than Sex, right?

GR: Yeah.

SCB: Well, it’s not until recently that I realized something. The kinds of movies that I love to make are combinations. For example: you can call it a comedy, sometimes you laugh, sometimes there’s suspense, there’s some mystery, there some fantasy, and in some sequences people cry. I found out that I like films with a little bit of everything. Other than suspense, this is a science fiction. You can call it a cocktail, but I like it. In the Reign of Assassins, I tried to blend all kinds of elements into one movie. Now, that’s the kind of movie that I like to make.

GR: In the film, you’ve pay homage to the wǔxiá genre, but it’s a bit toned down. For instance, there is wire work in the fight choreography, but it’s not really overly exaggerated compared to other films of the genre. Was this an attempt to make it a bit more realistic or stylish?

SCB: I think martial arts movies are very difficult to make because you have such a long history. There’s over forty years of history and maybe over a thousand martial arts movies. When I decided to take on this genre, I said to myself, “what kind of action do I want to do?” I discussed this with my action director Tong Wei. I wanted the action designs to be logical that was a top priority. Maybe, that’s why it might feel down to earth or realistic.

GR: You mentioned Stephen Tong Wei. He worked with you on Silk as well, right? How was it like working with him again?

SCB: Yes. When Tong Wei came to help on Silk , it was only for a few days because there weren’t many action sequences. But on Reign of Assassins , we worked together for almost four or five months. On the set, we had a running joke that he was the head of security because he always says, “it’s got to be 100% safe or I won’t do it.” He’s very persistent, but willing to discuss it. I’m relatively junior to him, but he’s willing to talk things over with me. So, it was a very pleasant experience to work with Tong Wei. Even as we watched the previews, we continued to work things out together.

GR: Tong Wei started back in the seventies.

SCB: It’s a long career.

GR: The editing of the action sequences is very stylish with a lot of quick cuts, sped up and slowed down footage, and close-up shots. What was the reason for this particular approach?

SCB: For some fighting sequences, the weapons were pretty small like a needle. So, it’s got to be close-up. The other reason is we filmed a lot of interior fight scenes and wanted to create a lot of tension. We started with a really wide shot, and the framing would get tighter and tighter towards the end.

GR: There is a bit of interesting casting. Michelle Yeoh, who has played other strong female leads, looks spectacular in the role of Drizzle. What lead to your decision to cast her?

SCB: This screenplay was tailor made for Michelle. Right from the beginning, we thought that she was the only one who could play this role. Although she is not young anymore, she is still the best actress in the martial arts movie genre. I can’t emphasizes enough how important it is to have an actress that can really fight. Because you don’t have to do this [covers his face with his hand]. If you see an actor covering his face with his hand, it’s a stunt double. For Michelle, we can always have a close up of her, and she can do all the action herself. That is very important. If you see the movie again, you will not see the actors’ faces in the fight sequences except for Michelle. You can always see her face.

GR: Her involvement almost guarantees constant comparisons to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon since they’re both wǔxiá. Was this a concern?

SCB: I know, but what can I do. [laughs] I have Michelle Yeoh. That’s the best you can get for a swordplay movie. I think this was her first major swordplay movie since Crouching Tiger.

GR: Was the age difference between Yeoh and other cast members like Jung Woo-sung and Barbie Hsu a point of concern?

SCB: We had a little concern in the beginning, but did a revision to the screenplay. It’s turned out fine.

GR: Her opposite was Jung Woo-sung who played Jiang Ah-sheng. What attracted you to the Korean actor?

SCB: Jung’s character, Michelle’s husband, needs to look like a nobody in the beginning. If I cast Andy Lau, everyone will say, “Ahh! That’s Andy Lau!” Instead hiding his identity, everyone is just stargazing. So, we wanted to get a new face into the movie but the character should be gentle and humble in the beginning. However, we could not find such an actor in the Chinese film industry. My producer Terence Chang said that he had an actor who was Korean. Because I wanted to see if he was the right fit [for the role], I flew to Seoul to meet and talk with him. At the first meeting, I thought he fit the character. So we took the risk on a Korean even though he cannot speak Mandarin. He’s also never been in a martial arts move before [this one].

GR: Did you see any of his previous work? He did the film Musa with Zhang Ziyi.

SCB: Yes. I also saw Daisy. Before I met him, my first thought was he’s too handsome. I told Emi Wada to make him look not so handsome. [laughs]

GR: You’ve had a very eclectic directorial filmography. Do you plan to make another wǔxiá films in the future?

SCB: Martial arts novels are some of my favorite stories. I will definitely do another martial arts movie in the future. Perhaps a mixed genre film. I don’t think there are pure genre films nowadays. Everything is a mix or a fusion. I would definitely do a mixed genre martial arts movie again.

GR: What film project are you working on next?

SCB: It’s an alien movie.

GR: Alien movie? Something big budget?

SCB: Not really big budget; same as the Reign of Assassins.

Special Thanks to Subway Cinema and The New York Asian Film Festival.