Peter Chan is one the names to remember when you are interested in Hong-Kong cinema from the 90's. Co-founder of the UFO and Applause studios, he has taken part in some very memorables movies, as well as a producer or director. He is one of the most interesting personnalities to interview in Hong-Kong, thanks to pertinence of his comments about the situation in this movie industry. Francois was lucky enough to chat about his career and movies with him.
François: First I would like that we talk a bit about your work with UFO, which is one of the most interesting studios in the 90's in Hong-Kong. So could you tell us about who created it, and what was the aim at the beginning ?
Peter: It started about 90-91, and originally, there were three founders, Eric Tsang, who is in most of my movies, Claudia Cheung and myself. And it was really aimed at basically being a home of filmmakers where they could make films that we wanna make and basically not controled by a major studio. Looking back at the early 90's, Hong-Kong was flooded with very trend-following movies. Basically the genres at the time were action of course, gangster movies, lots of martial arts swordfights movies. So at that time, we felt that our sensibilities were not that of, the general sensibility in Hong-Kong. So we wanted to find a place where we could work on the kind of films that we wanna work on.
So eventually these three founders grew into a five partners and eventually into six partners, including Lee Chi-Ngai, Jacob Cheung, and finally James Yuen who used to be a writer for us. So the six of us sort of built a consortium where we chipped in all our work and work in and out of this company in a sense where, if we were alone, we wouldn't have a strong working power. But together we have a bigger or better shot at developping something outside the mould, outside the system, at the time for Hong-Kong. So, that was really the conception of UFO, without really giving much design or plan to it, and a couple of hits actually flourished into a pretty good collaboration. And the working power after 1991-1992 was particularly strong, we had a significant market share at that time in Hong-Kong.
In most of UFO's movies, there is always an interesting topic like religion, career, music industry, and you are always making fun of it. Could you tell us more about this freedom of speaking ?
P: This is a freedom not from taboos, not from government restriction or censorship, because Hong-Kong is one of the freest country in the world. But the freedom is really freedom from any convention, from an industry who is very much driven by the economics. You have to understand that Hong-Kong is a very small city, the population is very very small. We never really let any culture or sub-culture flourish, or any non-mainstream culture flourish. Because our mainstream basically is not mainstream, we are only six millions people. Our mainstream is so small that our non mainstream would be 5 people because we have such a small population. We've always been plagued by that. So everything that Hong-Kong makes always falls in a very very formulated and calculated mould. So we were limited a lot, our freedom of choosing, the choice of material have always been limited by the economics.
The economics are dictated by some exporting countries like Taiwan, Singapour, Malaysia, and Korea and all those places. And all those places have even more conservatives tastes, they all like action, big broad comedies, slapstick comedies, and stuff like that. So it is very difficult to make intelligent comedies. What you were talking about a while ago, was basically intelligent comedy that has a sense of humor, that dares to play with tradition, chinese tradition, chinese culture or local cultures, or even religion to a certain extent. Those were not taboos by the sense of culture but because it doesn't make money. And we were able to sort of combine comedies which is a very commercial element with something that has something to say, because most comedies in the past had nothing to say about the society that we were living in. So we were able to make the kind of comedy that we like, which is a little bit more intelligent, and it has something to do with the society we are living in.
However, it seems like the traditional audiences are very conservative. Chinese people don't have american or the western sense of humor. When you play with a certain tradition and you are mocking on it, it seems very hard for the audience to accept it. And most of the audience, even younger audience, they just don't have this kind of humor. You know, they would laugh at a person sleeping on a banana peel, but they won't laugh at something which has to do with politics. They just don't know how to laugh.
It's maybe because people in Hong-Kong, I mean the audience, for them movies is more entertainment than art?
P: Yes entertainment, exactly. And it took many many years for us to start to get accepted. I wouldn't want to use the word "educated", we don't educate them, we sort of get a rythm going or to get acquaint to our audience, and the audience would be acquainted with that style of comedy. And even today, after 10 years probably, I mean, I just wrapped a film called Golden Chicken, and we took this kind of comedy to even a step further. I'm sure you probably haven't seen Golden Chicken..
Well, not yet, I could, but would be a fake VCD then :-)
P: (Laughs) This one is very much in the direction of what we were saying with UFO films. It is more mature and much more political. Not actually political, but social. And it is also taking the taboos one step further because it's dealing with the prostitutes. And through the eyes of prostitute, she retells her story which is really the story of Hong-Kong the last 20 years. The film did very well in Hong-Kong. But still, it was very controversial. On the internet you can see people saying that it's vulgar, it's cheap humor. And again there are bunch of people that liked it a lot. So after like 10 years, still a huge statement of the society really hasn't changed.
That's still probably better than before, because Golden Chicken made around 16 millions with competitors like Infernal Affairs, Hero, Harry Potter. That's quite encouraging, isn't it?P: Yes that's very encouraging. You know what's going on here everyday.
Yes, we try to follow the new movies. Again about UFO, there is some kind of nostalgia of the past decades in most of the movies. "He ain't heavy, he is my father" talks about the golden age in Hollywood and of course about this period in Hong-Kong, "Metade Fumaca" also, "And I Hate you So"... Is it just a coincidence, or were you fond of this kind of topic and mood at UFO ?
P: I'm sure it's not a coincidence, that Lee Chi-Ngai and I came together. It's not a coincidence that UFO people all came together. We came together because we like the same kind of things. And it's not a coincidence that the golden age of UFO was the last few years of Hong-Kong, of the british rule of Hong-Kong. We all came together because of a specific time. The time was actually the last few years of the british colonial rule. And all bunchs of people in Hong-Kong who grew up in the 50's, in the 60's, in the 70's, were all looking at their way of life that they think would go away. Or they think it's exactly the end of an era for Hong-Kong. And that mentality, or that ending of an era sentiment, was very widely spread, very influent for every filmmaker in Hong-Kong. That's why there was a sense of togetherness, of defining what was Hong-Kong or what is Hong-Kong at that time. That's why the films were dealing much more with where we came from (for example He aint heavy he is my father) or where we are (for example Tom Dick and Hairy) and also where we are going. That sense has probably brought Hong-Kong films together significantly in the early nineties.
But at the same time, we at UFO did separate ourselves to a certain extent with filmmakers who have been doing the same thing, for example C'est la vie Mon Chéri, those are very much about Hong-Kong. But however, I think that at UFO we are a little different, and the main difference comes from the collaboration between Lee Chi-Ngai and myself. Because the two of use were raised in Hong-Kong, but left it at a very young age. I left when I was 12 and I lived abroad for about 10 years, in Thailand and in the States, and then I came back to Hong-Kong. Lee Chi-Ngai left when he was 17 I think and then he lived in Canada for 12 years. We were similar in the fact that we were both taken away from our home at a very young age, at an age where we were old enough to know that our identity would always be Hong-Kongers. We are from Hong-Kong, we were not uprooted when we were six, we were not assimilated into a foreign culture weither it would be thai or american or canadian or whatever it is. We were at an age where we had strongly established our identity as someone from Hong-Kong, and yet we were taken away from the privilege of being close to our home. So for example a bowl of Wonton noodles. For us, it meant a lot more than for a regular Hong-Kong person. Because to them, a Wonton noodle is a granted a fact that they can have it everyday. But to us, it's the bowl of noodles that we can have only when we come back to Hong-Kong. So our love of Hong-Kong was much more over the top, to a certain extent. That's why we bring together what some people describe as an over-the-top expression of love for Hong-Kong. And also sometimes on the contrary, it can be over criticism because we love this piece of land so much, that we were also very harshly criticizing it. But we were always defined as not real Hong-Kongese people because we grew up abroad and we are more Hong-Kong than them because we keep talking about Hong-Kong, we wouldn't stop.
Talking about that, how do people from the movie industry and more generally from Hong-Kong feel? Do you feel Hong-Kongese ? Do you feel Chinese? It seems that Hong-Kong movies nowadays don't succeed in finding a new style, maybe just because people in Hong-Kong don't really know who they are ? And where they are going ? They didn't find their place in Asia like before ?
P: Yes, you are very right. I guess you know what I'm doing lately?
Yes of course, Applause Pictures.
P: That's one of the reasons... Applause Pictures is economicaly driven. A lot of people said "are you very ambitious, you wanna be panasian, blablabla". To me, I keep telling them that panasian is not an ambition. For us Panasian is a necessity. It's about survival. it's about just putting food on the table. If you don't go Panasian, you don't survive. Part of the reasons are, for me, psychologically, and physically. Physical survival: I think it's a fact that after 1997, I'm at lost. As a Hong Kong filmmaker. And that's part of the reasons why I stop making Hong-Kong films after Comrades. I moved to the States, I made an American movie. I came back, I started a Panasian company. Everything that I have been doing sort of felt like it is on the fringe of Hong-Kong film industry. It is never really Hong-Kong. But it has a lot of Hong-Kong elements, because for a start, I'm Hong-Kongese. No matter where I go, I'm Hong-Kongese. So if I make an american movie, I'm still the Hong-Kong element. You know, I will always be Hong-Kongese. My heart will always be Hong-Kong. If I make a panasian film, it will always be predominantly Hong-Kongese, because of my involvement.
But however, I was looking at the state of Hong-Kong film industry, and the fact that we really don't have a lot of good movies in the last few years. And I think, compared to the early nineties, I think the fire in our heart, as Hong-Kong, was sort of gone. And I'm trying to desperatly to find what went wrong. I think that after 1997, we don't know who we are. The fact that we are Hong-Kongese, I mean. Hong Kong is just a city. We always took pride in the fact that we are Hong-Kongese, because in the 80's Hong-Kong was the trend leader, you know the pop trend leader in Asia. But today, those days are gone. Korea, Thailand, every single culture in Asia, local cultures, emerged. Other than Hollywood films, Korean films were doing great in Korea, and even outside, and even Thai films are doing better than Hong-Kong films.
So all of a sudden, Hong-Kong movies place in Asia, which originally was the alternative to Hollywood, was now taken over by Korean and Thai and many others. And it's probably the same kind of thing that Japanese has experienced, ten years before. Because also Japanese films started going down in the 80's and the trend leading japanese idols and japanese movies were also on the way out 10 years ago. That's exactly what happened to Hong-Kong in the last five years. And part of the reasons is because when we don't find an identity as Hong-Kong, it affects our work. Because we are not like we once were. Proud of being Hong-Kong and knowing who we are. We were trying to scramble for a new identity. And that identity we have not found. Are we Chinese? We are not exactly Chinese. Are we Taiwanese ? We are not Taiwanese. And Chinese and Taiwanese are actually more similar than we are to even one of them. And that's probably because of the british rule or because of the westernization. And when we go up to China to work or to watch movies, we realized that Taiwanese and the Mainlanders as opposing to each other as they are, are actually brothers. They can really communicate together. They have the same language, they have the same style. It's very funny that they are on the opposite sides, they are much more similar than us.
And then I think that part of the reasons why Hong-Kong film has not been doing very very well, Hong Kong has not produced great films in the last years is because we don't know who we are. When we don't know who we are, we don't know what to make. And that is not only an observation. I mean it's part observation and part firsthand experience. Because I don't know what to make in Hong-Kong. I made a movie called "A Love Letter", it has something to do with Hong-Kong, and it was a job, it was a directing gig and it was not self generated like most of my other films at UFO days. And then I made Three, because it started as a collaboration between three countries, that really helped reaching the audience and expending the market. So I told them I'm in, and we get the whole thing together. Some film critics started to define by saying it is really a lot of subliminal and subconscious that I might not be awared of as a director, but that shows my Hong-Kongness and my conflicting and ambivalence about Hong-Kong today. But it could take place anywhere. As much as what the film could have been saying, it is not a film about Hong-Kong.
I disagree a little bit about Three, the approach of Chinese medicine in Going Home is really different from the western one. There is not spirit like that in western medicine. We couldn't make this story possible in western countries because people wouldn't not really accept what this doctor is doing to his wife. Did you take that into consideration when you did Going Home, this approach of chinese medecine ? Or was is unconscious?P: The funny thing is that it was really unconscious. I was trying to make a movie about love. And about how far you would go if you love someone. And I was using Chinese medecine as really a way of telling a story, and if you noticed, I purposely stayed away from a lot of details. I was trying to take the film to a level where you wouldn't have questions weither it's logical. I was hoping the audience would just believe in the story that I'm telling not because of Chinese medicine, but because of love. So I consciously stay away from dealing with what was on the tub, what medicine they were using and how it can happen. Because in the original story, it was very much about how it is done. And I personnaly purposely stay away from it.
F. So in fact to you it's more a romantic movie than an horror movie?
P: Yes it's about love. And you know, actually sometimes you make a movie without a complete vision of what you are gonna do. For me, when I first made it, I really didn't have a complete picture of what I was going to do. I was weighing my way through, to be very honest, for this film particularly. The story intrigued me, and I really wanted to unfold the dream from one genre to another and then to another in the length of 55 minutes. I wanted to start the film like an horror film, or like a really mystery horror film, like those classics The Innocents, Jack Clayton's Innocents or The Others, or The Turn of the Screw or Shining. And then evolves from there, a third through the movie into sort of a movie about a psychopath. And then from the movie about a psychopath... And then I wanted in act three to turn it into a love story. That would be very interesting. And of course it would be much better if I had 1h30 or 1h40 to explore that. But i'm quite fond of what I did you know. We did it in about 53 minutes, and in the long version 60 minutes. But it did really have the art of a feature.
And that's quite Hong-Kongese to change like that the mood of the movie several times. That's not usual in western countries. A movie it's a comedy, or it's a drama. Or it's horror movie. But it shouldn't change all the time. Almost only in Hong-Kong you can see a comedy with a very violent ending or a dramatic ending. So that's very encouraging to see that.P: Yes that's very encouraging, and you know why? Because we don't have a studio system. We don't have 100 people greenlighting a movie. We don't have a committee greenlighting a movie. Which means that when you do a movie, you don't have to go through a lot of processes, of approvals. So you are not as calculated in a way.
About the cast and crew of the movie, I read that Teddy Chen took part into the writing of the story, is it true ?
P: No, actually he was originally the director. And the guy who really wrote the story is a guy in Taiwan, Su Chao-Pin, writing under Teddy Chen supervision. And then because of other commitment he has to drop out. And then when I took other, I spend about three months trying to decide what story to make, because I didn't have to use the same story. So Iwent off and developped a couple of different ideas which didn't quite work. Then I thought, why don't we take this story, and dismantle and restructure it again ?
So we went back to the original concept. But the concept was very different. This screenplay, that I didn't read, in order not be too influenced by the screenplay, was very very different. He didn't take a love story approach, but he actually took a very supernatural approach, and went through all the steps, and ways of ressurection, and it's about the decaying of the body, much more special effect driven. And as I'm not a very special effect driven director, I decided that it's better for me to just concentrate on the one thing that is the best premise. This premise offers one really great chance of making a movie about unrequited love. So I actually turn the whole thing into a love story.
And about the casting, it's interesting to see what you are able to make Leon Lai. With Comrades and with Going Home, you seem to know how to make him perform really well. So could you tell us more about the way you work with him ?
P: I think the way I have been working with Leon is quite simple. We have a lot of discussions on characters, and like for “Comrades”, we wrote a lot of his own real character into the movie. I think the key about Leon is not about how to direct him. Because I don't believe a director directs a movie, directs an actor. Because I'm not a theatrically trained director and most actors in Hong-Kong theatrically trained either to take director's directions. So the way I have been working with Leon is simply to spend a lot of time to know who he really is. And then try to write his character into the role or try to develop a certain trust, that we could become very close, in a sense where we really trust each other. And that's the only way that actors and directors could work together I think. But the problem with Hong-Kong is that Hong-Kong films really never have the time. For actors and directors to get better acquainted.
And it's also more difficult for Leon, because Leon is probably of the hardest person to get close to. Because he is very protective of himself, and he is very unsecured. Not as an actor, but as a person. He is very unsecured to the persons around him. He doesn't trust people very much. But with Comrades, I really had a lot of conversations with him to pick some of the best qualities in him, and wrote them into the script, so he felt very comfortable acting his character role in Comrades. And for this movie, this trust that we have developped allowed him to be very relaxed when he comes to the set, and he feels very secured and also I feel very secured when I'm with him. So the two of us sort of share a trust that probably other directors didn't share with him.
And about Eric Tsang, is he just lucky to have always great characters in your movie because he is your friend, or is it him who is making those characters so great ?
P: I think it's a little bit of both. Like the character in Comrades. Because I know him so well, I don't believe he could do the role in Comrades, which is probably one of his best role ever. But I really didn't believe he could do that, because I know him so well. And I believe in him as an actor, and I believe that he could be great in that role. And in person, the real person, he IS that role. He is that powerful guy. He is not a gangster, but in the movie industry, he is like that big brother, you know, in the role in Comrades. And he is not always a funny person, he sometimes can be a very serious person. So the one in Comrades is really him, but I dared not cast him in the beginning, because I thought that the audience perception of him has always been such of a comic actor. And then it's very hard for the audience to forget that he is a comedian. So the audience would always laugh when he does serious things. I could remember in my first movie, Alan and Eric between Hello and Good Bye, even when he dies, in the premiere, people laugh. Because the people never took him seriously. I was afraid of that, as we lived that experience, so I actually didn't cast him until the very last minute. Then I run out of all possible choices, so I finally called him in New York, and said "Can you get on a plane, I'm shooting in two days, I have no one else to go to, could you come and do this role?". And of course, it turned up that I should have casted him in the first place, because he is the perfect guy for the role. And he brings so much on the table. I think directing Eric is not difficult, because he has so much live experience. He always acts so much the character. The only thing that you have to do with Eric is... I can say this because we are very very close. One of the reasons why I think I can direct him better is because I know him so well that I don't have to give face to him. I will explain in a minute. Eric has always a tendancy to act 20% too much. Which means that he is always great in all the roles, but he is a very intense actor. So intense acting could be sometimes a little bit over the top. So with Eric, the only thing I have to do, is to tell him to calm down. Just press him down 10 to 20%. And he is great.
Yes, he is in the movie industry for such a long time, that he is acting like most actors in Hong-Kong, that's always over the top acting, overacting.P: Yes, exactly. But all you need to do is to tell him to calm down, by 20%. But the reason why in other movies he couldn't do that, why he is still over the top, is because he is a big guy, in Hong-Kong. Even though he is not the biggest actor, but with his reputation in the industry, he is the big brother. He is like the gangster in Comrades. So a lot of young directors, a lot of directors who worked with him, even older directors, dared not challenge him. Because they are not close to him. But I'm like his brother, I'm like his son to a certain degree. He actually gave me my first break and we have been working together for almost 20 years. So I can say "hey Eric, calm down!", because I'm close enough to him, and he would listen to me. So it's that simple. Because you don't really need to direct him, all you need to do is calm him down, because he is really a great actor.
Still talking about actors and actresses that you know well, Anita Yuen played a big part in the success of UFO. Now we don't really see her so much. Would you like to work with her again, and do you think we are going to see her on the big screen again ?P: She went to TV the few years I was away from Hong-Kong. And when I came back, she really became a TV actress. And I think it is a shame, because as important as TV is, movies is still where she would shine most. I mean, I don't have a project in hand to work with her, but I would always love to see her back on the big screen. Because she is such a phenomenal actress. And I believe that she is still very young. She is only probably 30, 31? She still has a whole life in front of her. And I really believe that she will have a come back on movies, given the right film.
There are a lot of young promises actresses in Hong-Kong recently. That's encouraging to see that women are doing so well, like Sammi Cheng being the queen of box office, Miriam Yeung being a comic power, then you have Angelica Lee for The Eye, Karena Lam for July Rhapsody. Are you pleased to see so many rising talents in Hong-Kong ?P: Yes, and it's just not enough. We have a lot of girls, we don't have enough guys!
Yes, exactly. But in a country where women are still considered sometimes as "inferior" to men, that's interesting to see that in a crisis like this, women are doing the job.P: You see, it's very similar to Korea also. Korea is also a male society. And all of a sudden, there are a lot of women who started to come up in Korea, like Jeon Ji-Hyun from My Sassy Girl, Shim Eun-Ha from Christmas in August. Both are bigger names internationnaly, outside Korean, than any korean actor. And that's a funny thing also in Hong-Kong, which is still less a case than in Korea, a lesser case than Korea, but still a male dominant society. With our idols, singer pop idols or a movie idols, they have always been Chow Yun-Fat, Stephen Chow, Andy Lau, and all of a sudden, the biggest stars are actually women. Today I can tell you, Sammi Cheng is the most bankable star. Whatever people can tell you. She is more bankable than Andy Lau.
Yes, or even Stephen Chow. She is 20 millions HK$ whatever she is going to do.P: Exactly, you are right! Whatever she does, it's 20 millions (laughs). You see, that's a very interesting phenomenom.
Thanks a lot Mr Chan!P: You are welcome.