A distinctive film-making culture is blooming in Hong Kong. Liz Shackleton turns the spotlight on a new generation of visionary directors
Far from being overwhelmed by the China market, Hong Kong’s film-making sector has shown extraordinary resilience in recent years by turning out new directors who continue to reflect Hong Kong culture and work in Cantonese.
It is a tough business — finance follows the mainland market and expensive stars — yet new generations keep emerging. Around eight years ago, film-makers such as Pang Ho Cheung, Lee Kung Lok, Soi Cheang and Patrick Kong (aka Yip Lim Sum) began making distinctly Hong Kong-style films and carving sustainable careers. Now a new group is coming to the fore.
Some credit for this must go to the efforts of local producers who nurture new talent, including Nansun Shi, Eric Tsang and Bill Kong through his joint venture with Japan’s Avex, Irresistible Films. Government body the Hong Kong Film Development Council has also played a role, along with the platform provided by the Hong Kong International Film Festival.
However major kudos goes to those brave souls who have stuck to their passion in a challenging financial environment. We profile 10 Hong Kong film-makers to note, who have all directed their first features in the last five years.
Hong Kong film-makers to watch
Cheng came up with the idea for Gallants, the kung-fu tribute he co-directed with Derek Kwok, while jamming with the movie’s 60-something star Teddy Robin. The film, about a kung-fu master who awakens from a 30-year coma to kick some butt, has been a hit with festival audiences all over the US and Europe. He has since co-directed Merry-Go-Round, a drama spanning six decades, with Yanyan Mak. Before his move into directing, Cheng worked in various production roles and scripted films including Wilson Yip’s Skyline Cruisers and Kwok’s The Moss. “Movies have a social responsibility to entertain, while at the same time deliver a message,” says Cheng, who is working on several new scripts.
Cheung’s feature-length documentary KJ: Music And Life, about a child prodigy, won him the best new director prize at last year’s Hong Kong Film Awards and three prizes at Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards. His latest work, One Nation Two Cities, about mainland immigrants, is in competition at HKIFF. “It touches on political issues but it’s really more about families and how they’ve been affected by the changes in China,” says Cheung. A former musician, Cheung studied cello in New York but graduated with a degree in film production and philosophy before returning to Hong Kong. He cites Ann Hui as a mentor and scripted her 2009 Night And Fog.
Contact: Anna Wong, (852) 3741 2749; email@example.com
A truly international film-maker, Chow was born in China, raised in Hong Kong and educated in the US. Renowned as a screenwriter — his credits include Fearless, Blood: The Last Vampire and John Woo’s The Flying Tigers — he made his directing debut last year with Strawberry Cliff. Backed by Irresistible Films, the English-language thriller follows a US girl who travels to Hong Kong to unravel mysteries of the afterlife. It premiered at Pusan and has distributors on board for a release in the US and China later this year. “I like to mix genre and arthouse elements, which I think works these days because we all grew up with different influences,” says Chow.
A renowned screenwriter who has written for directors such as Peter Ho-sun Chan, Teddy Chen and Ann Hui, Ho [pictured] made the successful transition to directing with Claustrophobia in 2008 and Crossing Hennessy, starring Jacky Cheung and Tang Wei, last year. Both films, which were backed by Irresistible Films, were romances of a realistic rather than saccharin nature, but Ho says she loves crime stories and is now working on a mystery-suspense project. “We need to look at how we can continue to do original Hong Kong stories which also work in China. I want to continue to make Cantonese films,” says Ho, who says she will also continue to write for other people.
Kwok is white-hot after being tapped by Stephen Chow to direct a new instalment in the Chinese Odyssey series, which became a cult classic in the 1990s. He started out as an assistant director to Wilson Yip and drew acclaim for his first two features — edgy dramas The Pye-dog (2007) and The Moss (2008). He followed those with romantic fantasy Frozen and kung-fu parody Gallants, which he co-directed with Clement Cheng. That was enough to draw the attention of Hong Kong’s leading producers — Chow’s Chinese Odyssey project is scheduled to shoot this summer and Kwok is also developing gambling drama The Enchanter for Teddy Chen.
Mak was only 23 years old when she wrote and directed her debut feature, High Noon, a Hong Kong version of the Eric Tsang-produced Taiwanese teen drama Winds Of September. She followed that by co-scripting Love In A Puff with Pang Ho Cheung and directing her second feature Ex for actor-producer Chapman To. Ex, which follows a group of young people in Hong Kong, was praised for its tight structure and light but mature tone. She is now working on a second project with To, about two young female singers striving for fame. “People think of Hong Kong as being a wealthy place with a lot of freedom, but there are lots of side stories that need to be told,” says Mak, who turns 27 this year.
Wing Shya and Tony Chan
Hot Summer Days, a romantic comedy directed by fashion photographer Shya and screenwriter Chan, combined Hong Kong and mainland elements and was a huge hit last year, grossing more than $20m. The film also marked the first Chinese-language production of Fox International Productions (FIP) which co-produced with Huayi Brothers. Hot Summer Days was Shya’s directorial debut though Chan, who studied in the US, had previously directed drama Combination Platter which won best screenplay at Sundance in 1993. They are now working on another project for FIP, called Love In Space, which will be co-produced by Huayi and Sundream.
Contact: Alan Zhou, Huayi Brothers, (86) 135 0117 3693
Derek Tsang and Jimmy Wan
Tsang, who has worked as an actor, editor and assistant director, and screenwriter Wan joined forces last year to direct Lover’s Discourse, a portmanteau drama with overlapping characters in four separate stories. Produced by Pang Ho Cheung and backed by Irresistible Films, the romantic drama played several Asian festivals and won positive reviews. Pang is also producing the duo’s second film, a romantic comedy tentatively titled Lucuna, which is in post after shooting in Beijing. “Of course I’ll continue to make films that deal with local Hong Kong contents, but on the other hand Hong Kong is only a city, and as film-makers we should have our focus on the wider world,” says Tsang.
Contact: Wang Chi Man, (852) 9210 6224
A well-known film critic and festival programmer, Wong initially intended to be a producer — he produced Yu Lik Wai’s 1999 Love Will Tear Us Apart — but stepped up to script and direct his debut, The Drunkard, when he could not find the right talent to work on it. It took him several years to get the project, an adaptation of Liu Yichang’s 1960s novel, off the ground. “Local investors were worried it was too literary,” he explains. With seed money from the Hong Kong Arts Development Council, he eventually rustled up the $500,000 budget from former classmates. The film garnered strong reviews at Vancouver and Pusan and was picked up by Media Asia for international sales. He is hoping to develop it into a trilogy.
Yung started out as an assistant director and line producer and is also a film critic writing for local papers and magazines. After producing a Macau-set documentary called Gold Rush, he struck out with debut feature Glamorous Youth in 2009. The independently financed drama, which follows a father and son relationship, was praised for its visual style and exploration of the realities beneath the surface gloss of Hong Kong. He is now developing his second feature with the same production company, Chang Wen’s Digital Jungle Production, which has been selected for this year’s Hong Kong Asia Film Financing Forum.