Interview Carol Lai

Carol Lai sur le tournage de Floating Landscape
Carol during the shooting of Floating Landscape

During the post-production of Floating Landscape, Carol Lai nicely spared us some of her precious time to answer our questions, despite the fact that everyone was rushing to complete the movie for the deadline. Beside all the pressure she had on her shoulders, she appeared to us as a dynamic, charming and very sympathetic woman. Thanks to those good conditions, the interview quickly became a chat between Carol Lai and us, so here is a light version of this long and very pleasing conversation.

Alain: First of all, for which reasons did you study filmmaking ?

Carol: I didn’t study filmmaking, I studied marketing (laughter).

Alain: (laughter) Well, that’s a good answer… And maybe that’s why you began to work at Hong-Kong Movie Industry as an assistant director and assistant producer and also at Network On Air Promotion as a producer?

Carol: Actually the producer was also the director.

Alain : Ah OK, it was the same job. Which kind of work did you do where you were in those two companies? Just commercials?

Carol: Oh no, That was TV programmes.

Alain: What kind of programmes?

Carol: Everything: dramas, documentaries, news, sometimes “image promos” which is to promote some artists.

Astec: Was it a creative work at the television?

Carol: It was very creative because we wrote the scripts and did everything like editing, directing, and shooting. So that’s why they don’t call that job “director”, because we do all the things.
Alain: you were the production manager on After The Crescent: how much have you been involved in the HK independent movie scene? Do you think it had an influence on your own work and more generally, do you take some directors (locals or foreigners) as models for your inspiration in filmmaking?

Carol: I wasn’t very involved in the independent scene. The indies are not very professional, excepting Fruit Chan. When I am very tired of movie production, I always see Wong Kar-Waï's movies.

Alain: How did you get the connection with Joe Ma Wai-Oh?

Carol: In my early days after I graduated from school, we were in the same company: I was an assistant director and he was a scriptwriter so I knew him at that period. We worked together but for some years, we didn’t see each others but then, he became producer at Brillant Idea Group. When I had finished the script, I went to him because he was searching for new directors. Glass Tears was a very small budget and he got the money very quickly so we did it.

Alain: Speaking about Glass Tears : how did Lo Lieh get involved in the movie?
Carol: Actually, I had picked up another one which I liked more but he became a very difficult guy, Joe Ma told me he was difficult to handle. I talked to Ann Hui and she said: “he’s different….” (laughter). And then my husband reminded me that Ann Hui had replaced this actor with Lo Lieh in her early movies but I can’t remember the title (editor’s note: Story Of Woo Viet). Then I tought that Lo Lieh was a very good choice but he quit acting for some years, went to Shenzhen in China because he wanted to have some peace. It was difficult to find him because we lost all contacts but we finally succeeded and he said “yes, why not?” and it became his final movie.
Alain: He has played in so many movies and has earned a big experience: weren’t you afraid that he could criticise you for your inexperience in actor direction as it was your first movie?
Carol: Oh no, he’s a very nice guy…


Alain: OK, it’s just what I thought because in the movie it seems there is no difference between his character and his real personality, it just seems that the character was written for him. He’s just like the grandfather all the kids wished to have, he’s cool.

Carol: Yeah he’s cool because in the movie there was many little girls and they loved to talk to him and it was good because we needed “dialogue”, he was a young one, he was still eighteen years-old… (laughter)

Alain: I saw the movie just one week before his death. Did his death affect you?

Carol: It was really heart-breaking, unbelievable because we went to Paris together in 2001 and then in 2002 he died…(silence)

Alain: Ok, a much happier topic: it’s about Zeny Kwok. She just came from nowhere and made two very good movies (Glass tears and Merry Go-Round) : she’s a good actress and I wanted to know how she got in the movie industry because she doesn’t sing, she’s not a star at all.
Carol: Yes, she’s not a star. A that time, she was a student, I saw her face while I was reading a magazine. You know in HK we pick up the magazines with lots of young girls: the fashion magazines. Lots of model agencies look for many of those girls but Zeny was very different with her eyes, her face and attitude, she was really standing out… I asked the model agency if it was possible to cast her but at that time I was actually helping Bryan Chang Wei-Hung, an independent filmmaker (ndr: director of After The Crescent and Among The Stars) and I helped him for the casting and that was the first time I saw her. She has something in her eyes that says “who are you, what are you doing?” and she was exactly the one I was looking for. So when I was seeking funds for the movie, I gave the picture to Joe Ma and said to the company “I will use this girl, she’s beautiful” and they accepted her immediately.
Alain: She has only played in two movies: does she study now?
Carol: She’s not in school, she still works for modelling. You know in HK, things come very fast and go very fast : if a company doesn’t support you, you just disappear like that. And also, she’s not in a very good age, she’s only nineteen I think.
Alain: Nineteen?! But she looks much younger…
Carol: Yes, younger, because my movie was made two years ago. I don’t know what will happen to her in the future, because she isn’t supported by a big company and she didn’t insist to become a movie star. She wants to be a ballerina. She was nominated as best actress at the golden horse awards and the HK film awards but she didn’t get the prizes, she was the final one.


Alain: The next actor is Tsui Tin-Yau from the boys-band Shine (editor’s note: Carol starts to laugh). There are a lot people who think “oh no, those pop singers can’t act”: how was it to work with him?
Carol: I saw him in TV commercials and I found him interesting so I cast him and he’s exactly like the one in those TV commercials. He’s good-looking of course but he has his way of thinking. He’s still very young but he’s very strong-minded actually.
Zeny Kwok, Lo Lieh and Tsui Tin-Yau


Alain: How did you manage to direct these actors as there is a huge age difference between them?
Carol: Oh, Lo Lieh is very easy and I just had to tell him: “stay cool, stay cool” (laughter). But for the young actors, you need to bring out more, to help them to act more, actually I paid to gave them acting courses (she smiles).
Alain: About the parents of the character named Cho, who are played by Tats Lau and Carrie Ng, I was wondering (by the way you describe them in your movie) if you experienced this kind of relationship in your life.
Carol: Yeah, it often happens like that in HK’s society so the audience doesn’t like to see this because it’s too real, too close to reality. And you know what: Zeny’s parents are exactly like that, especially her mother…
Alain: How many takes did you have to do for the scene where Carrie Ng is crying during her diner?
Carol: Just two.
Alain: Just two?! Wow, it’s one of her best performance, she’s not usually so good in other movies, did you gave her exact indications about what she had to do?
Carol: Yes because when I think about the scenes, I tell the actors exactly what I want. For example, in this scene, I told Tats Lau to keep eating, to stay quiet. But for crying, I let her do by herself.
Alain: So you leave a little space of work to your actors where they can express themselves.
Carol: Yes but if it’s too far from my idea, I will correct them. Zeny Kwok had quite a hard time sometimes (laughter)!
Alain: In my opinion, the general idea of the movie is: one family breaks apart, another one which is “fake” is created. The usual notion of the family in modern society doesn’t exist anymore and now we create our own family with friends.
Carol: Actually when I wrote the script I wanted to tell that sometimes you could be nice to strangers even if they are not from your family, it’s always a good thing to do. You meet some strangers, they will be nice and you’ll always remember them: such tiny feelings… Sometimes you’re nicer to strangers than to your own family.
Alain: About the kids: there is a difference between their real age and their acts, for example when Zeny tries to kill herself, they just look like kids who have grown up too fast.
Carol: You know, the HK kids are all like that. They can grow up suddenly: this is why I wanted to tell a story about kids of this age, from fourteen to sixteen years old, between these two years they tend to go against the system. It’s a very interesting stage.
Alain: In general, movies about youth always have a depressing mood but in Glass Tears, there is some kind of optimism, you want to show the good sides.
Carol: I have been a problem school teacher with students of the same age as shown in my movie but it’s the stage where they can go bad. Actually, I pity them. We can pick the best side of them and we can become very commercial like in Young&Dangerous but I don’t want things like that. It’s the most dangerous period for kids, I think we need to talk on this topic. I want the forty-year old, the audience, to pay more attention to their children.
Alain: Yeah, just like when Tats Lau says about his girl “Oh, I just hope she won’t get pregnant”.
Carol: Yes, this is a very important dialogue actually but sadly they are normal. Parents in Hong-Kong just give up, abandon theirs childrens and say “You’re not my kid”. Many people in Hong-Kong are like this and it’s very disappointing.
Alain: There is a book in the movie which Zeny Kwok always have with her but it’s not translated in the subtitles of the vcd. What’s this book?
Carol: This is a Hong-Kong map.
Alain: Is it just to know where she is or does it have a special meaning?
Carol: It was for the character’s design for the story. When I did some researches on the girl, I found out that the girls really liked to look at the map to see other places in Hong-Kong. Actually this movie was made two years ago so I don’t remember all the details (laughter).
Alain: On a technical aspect: Danny Pang is credited as the editor and there is a lot of flash-backs and fast editing in your movie.
Carol: Fast editing is his style but flashbacks are my style, that’s my way of telling the story, it was written like this in the script.
Alain: And did you like his work?
Carol: mmmmm, he’s more into modern cinema (laughter).
Alain: The mood of Glass tears is very relaxing…
Carol: yes because I’m a very relaxed person (laughter)!
Alain: I thought of this because the soundtrack is very good.
Carol: Do you know Anthony Wong?
Alain: Anthony Wong Chau-Sang, the one from Infernal Affairs?
Carol: Oh no, the handsome one (editor’s note: Anthony Wong Yiu-Ming). I like his songs and he’s also the leader of People Mountain People Sea (editor’s note: official website). I asked him if I could use his songs and he said OK, so I wanted the whole film with the same style. I asked one member of People Mountain People Sea to do the whole soundtrack.
Tsui Tin-Yau and Zeny Kwok at Cannes
Alain: With your first movie, you went to Cannes: it’s the dream of many filmmakers. Did you have a good time there?
Carol: Oh you know, I was the baby-sitter of Zeny and Tsui Tin-Yau (laughter). I really enjoyed being in Cannes, we always drinked! (laughter)


Alain: Now, about Floating Landscape…

Carol: Ah finally! (laughters)

Alain: Yes finally (laughters)… Why didn’t you work with Joe Ma anymore and how did you get Stanley Kwan to produce your movie?

Carol: Actually, Joe Ma was interested in the story and we started to write the script but he found it was impossible to make it with a small budget and he said no. So I had already completed the script, I went to Stanley and asked “can you help?” and he liked the script so he helped me to get a connection with Filmko. I don’t have a bad relationship with Joe Ma, he wanted to do it but with a small budget

Alain: Because you wanted more money to bring the movie as close to your ideal vision of it?

Carol: Yes. We have even spent a lot of money (laughter).

Alain: Yeah, I’ve seen the budget of the movie and it’s quite high…

Astec: Maybe you’ve gone over-budget?

Carol: I don’t know, and I don’t want to know it! (laughter)

Alain: What’s the difference between shooting in Hong-Kong and China?
Carol: The difference is that usually in Hong-Kong you have to be really fast because it’s expensive. In China, the labour is cheap but very unorganised… Maybe because my project is also very unorganised (laughter).
Alain: Ah, my favourite subject… Ekin Cheng Yee-Kin…

Carol: Ah, Yee-Kin! He’s good in my film! (laughter)

Astec: He’s a fan.

Carol: (To Alain) You really?

Alain: Yeah, I’ve seen most of his movies.
Carol: Goo Wat Jai (editor’s note: original title of Young&Dangerous) right?
Alain: Yeah, wonderful series. (Pulling out the dvd of Legend Of Speed from my bag and giving it to Carol) Maybe we’ll see it tonight.
Astec: If I want to… (laughter)
Carol: (Looking at the cover) Oh my god! (laughter). OK, I understand you want to interview him! (laughter)
Alain: Oh no no, we want an interview of you! (laughter) I was wondering if you have worked with him the same way Stanley Kwan has worked with Chingmy Yau on Hold You Tight.

Carol: Ah, you will see… (smiling). Wait till the film is out and we’ll discuss it. But he’s very good…

Alain: A few hours ago, we talked with Liu Ye about the communication on the set and Liu Ye explained there was some tensions on the set because of the difference of languages between Mandarin and Cantonese.

Carol: he’s very good at expressing himself. But sometimes there can be different ideas between ideas. In fact, he’s too good, he always want to go further. Liu Ye is hot, he has become very important.

Alain: He’s the next big star in China
Carol: Yes, he will be. And if those kinds of actors gets to know you too well, they will control you so it was very good to keep a distance. If I let him act his way, it wouldn’t have correspond to my ideas. And you know, acting in movies is always a balance between the director’s vision and the actor’s work.
Alain: Where did you find the location for the scene with all the blossoming trees?
Carol: I searched the location by myself. I went to a few places in the countryside and finally went to Qing Dao and found a picture in a book representing this kind of landscape so that’s how this landscape became important in the plot of the movie but anyway, you will see (laughter). Actually the place doesn’t exist anymore. Qing Dao is changing very fast and they cut all the trees suddenly to build houses so we moved to another place which was better than the previous one. So we were lucky.
Qing Dao during the shooting
Alain: It’s very unusual to see a HK whole production lasting so long (editor’s note: more than 6 months), during all this time, have you changed something to your original vision?
Carol: I didn’t rewrite the script but we changed small things. The drama is on Karena but because of Liu Ye, his role got more importance.
Alain: Your movie is about death of the beloved ones and the way of accepting it. This theme has been done a lot in the past. Did you think about similarities during the production?
Carol: No because you’ll always have your own way of making movies. You could say “ah that’s the same story” but I can tell you it will be completely different. It’s a strong drama between people, this is how we should preserve the love and how the new love begins, it’s very pure.


Alain: About the script, which style do you think is the best: making a very melodramatic movie with a strong ending which will leave the viewers in tears, or keeping the melodramatic side below and develop the characters and their relations?
Carol: The producer has already seen the movie and he said it was a psychological drama. You will feel the emotion everywhere…
Alain: Where do you find your ideas for your scripts and is it a hard process to perfect them?
Carol: I usually write accordingly to my mood, my condition. For example, I want to make a comedy now, because I want to laugh. It’s of course very hard to perfect a idea, but sometimes, I let the idea "grow" with the actor/actress and the team . I always find it interesting and fascinating.
Alain: In HK, women directors are becoming more and more important: there was the “old” generation which is still active: Ann Hui, Sylvia Chang, Clara Law, Mabel Cheung and there’s the new generation with Crystal Kwok, Aubrey Lam, Gc Goo-Bi and you. They make such excellent movies: how do you explain that?
Carol: I don’t know why… Because in HK, girls simply love to go to cinema, that’s the truth! (laughter)

All our thanks to Carol Lai, Filmko, Rosem Films and Karena Lam

  • July 2003