Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Stanley Kwan

Along with Wong Kar-Wai, Stanley Kwan is one of the most prominent directors of Hong Kong's Second Wave. In a national cinema known more for martial arts films than art films, Kwan has created some of Asia's most inventive and complex films of the 1980s and 1990s.

Born in Hong Kong in 1957, Kwan landed a job at the television station TVB after receiving a mass communications degree at Baptist College, with the hopes of becoming an actor. That never panned out; instead Kwan learned filmmaking by serving as an assistant director during the early '80s, to some of the most prominent members of the nascent Hong Kong New Wave, including Ann Hui and Patrick Tam. His directorial debut, Women (1985), starring a pre-John Woo Chow Yun-Fat, was a big box-office success. In this film, as in much of his subsequent work, Kwan presented the audience with a sympathetic exploration of the plight of women, told in a stylistically inventive, often challenging manner. He followed Women with the ambitious Love Unto Waste (1986), which followed the lives of several emotionally damaged professionals. Though the film was a financial failure, it displayed his command of the medium and development of a mature style.

In 1987, Kwan released his masterpiece, Rouge, a gorgeous film about the spirit of a courtesan from the 1930s who returns to Hong Kong in 1987 to search for her lover. The movie proved to be one of Hong Kong's most internationally successful films, both critically and financially. Though the ghost story is a well-worn genre, Rouge used none of the dry-ice effects and flying somersaults conventional to these films. Instead, Kwan used an inventive double storyline to explore themes of identity, history, and narrative. After directing the cross-cultural drama Full Moon in New York, he radically reworked the biopic genre in The Actress (1992), a biography of Chinese silent movie icon Ruan Lingyu. This complex film blended fact and fiction, documentary and narrative; for example, Kwan edits footage of star Maggie Cheung playing Ruan with documentary footage of Maggie Cheung explaining how she researched the part. The result is a Brechtian interrogation of cinema itself. The film won several awards, including the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the 1992 Berlin Film Festival. Kwan directed Red Rose White Rose, a characteristic drama about the suffering of women at the hands of men, and Yin & Yang: Gender in Chinese Cinema, a documentary on Chinese cinema for the British Film Institute. His Yue Kuaile, Yue Duoluo (1998) was screened at the 1998 Berlin Film Festival.

From the internationally acclaimed works of Wong Kar-wai and Ann Hui to more under-the-radar pieces from filmmakers such as Allen Fong and Stanley Kwan, Hong Kong’s arthouse movies are exceptionally bold, evocative, and varied. Any serious lover of arthouse films should take the time to check out these works from some of the city’s most well-regarded auteurs.

Any list of Hong Kong art films has to start with the works of the internationally acclaimed auteur, Wong Kar-wai. Set in 1960s Hong Kong and starring Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, In the Mood for Love, a seductive, slow-burning movie about melancholy, desire, and loss, was hailed by the BBC as the second-greatest film of the 21st century.

Along with In The Mood For Love, Chungking Express is one of Wong Kar-wai’s most iconic films. Set mainly in Tsim Sha Tsui’s Chungking Mansions and filled with avant-garde camerawork, it tells two parallel stories of unrequited love and is heavily influenced by the French New Wave.

Directed by Ann Hui, Song of the Exile, a semi-autobiographical film, is a poignant exploration of cultural alienation and the migrant experience. Maggie Cheung stars as Hui Yan, a recent British university graduate from Hong Kong who accompanies her mother to her home village in Japan.

Directed by Tsui Hark, who is regarded as one of Hong Kong’s ‘New Wave’ filmmakers who emerged in the late 80s and early 90s, The Blade is an example of a Hong Kong arthouse martial arts film. Unlike traditional martial arts films, The Blade doesn’t portray its characters as heroes, instead adopting a bleaker, more nihilistic tone. Stylistically, Tsui plays with rapid cuts and frenetic camera movements during fight scenes.

Rouge is a highly stylized romantic fantasy film and one of Stanley Kwan’s most famous works. The legendary Anita Mui stars as Fleur, a 1930s courtesan who enters a suicide pact with her wealthy playboy lover, played by Leslie Cheung. Fifty years later, Fleur returns to the world of the living to find out why her beau never joined her in the afterlife.

Centre Stage is a Hong Kong New Wave classic and another masterpiece by Stanley Kwan. Based on the real-life story of Ruan Lingyu, a 1930s Shanghai silent movie star who commits suicide at the age of 24, this film won Maggie Cheung the Best Actress award at the 1992 Berlin International Film Festival.

Directed by Allen Fong, whose distinctive style is influenced by the Italian neorealist films of the 1940s and 50s, Ah Ying tells the story of an aspiring actress who works in her parents’ marketplace fish stall and takes classes at the local film school. Featuring fly-on-the-wall style camerawork and sharp cultural observations of the lives of Hong Kong’s poor in the 1980s, this is one of the era’s most underrated films.

Directed by Fruit Chan and released just after the handover of Hong Kong sovereignty to China, this classic movie is one of Hong Kong’s true indie films. Sam Lee stars as Autumn Moon, a teenage delinquent who works as a debt collector for a triad gang member. Despite being made on a shoestring budget with non-professional actors, Made In Hong Kong was a huge success on the international festival circuit and picked up 13 awards and six nominations at the 1998 Hong Kong Film Awards, including the award for Best Picture.

Capturing China's Gay Heart  feature and interview by B. Ruby Rich from The Advocate, September 3, 2002

Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan talks about Lan Yu.  His lyrical gay love story filmed in supposedly repressive China.

“The reason that I announced my sexuality was that I felt that as a creator at that stage it would be better for me if I became honest with the public rather than trying to hide.  When you’re young you might as well have a good time and not think too much.  But when you are older you want to have a commitment to things, and the only way to do that is to be yourself, to come out, rather than pretend.”

So says director Stanley Kwan, whose new gay love story, Lan Yu, comes to American audiences this summer.  When Kwan shocked Hong Kong by coming out, he was already established as one of the city’s best filmmakers, esteemed for his finely tuned aesthetics and perfectly realized tragic heroines.  Asked to do a documentary for the British Film Institute’s Century of Cinema series, Kwan boldly turned the exercise into Yin and Yang: Gender in Chinese Cinema, an open meditation on his own gay identity as traced through Hong Kong, Taiwanese, and Chinese movies.  And lest there be any doubt about how personal this all was, Kwan’s mother even appears on-screen, proudly chatting with her son about the films she saw while he was still in the womb. 

Kwan’s new film, Lan Yu, his first gay narrative, is a love story between a closeted middle-aged businessman and the poor student he hires for sex. Kwan manages to create an emotional resonance that doesn’t so much transcend the story as amplify it to encompass everyone’s sense of hope and loss.  “Something about the story really touched me,” admits Kwan.  “I reviewed it many times, and it made me want to talk to my boyfriend of 10 years, William.  And because it made me want to talk to him, all of a sudden I became passionate about the story and committed to it.”     

Lan Yu has its source in Beijing Story, a novel that was written anonymously by a Chinese woman in memory of her good friend, whose life and great love it recounts.  It circulated in installments on the Internet in China and was so popular with China’s gay subcultures that the novel’s characters became part of chat-room exchanges.  The phenomenon came to the attention of Zhang Yongning, a London-based actor and producer.  Zhang laid siege to Kwan, who finally agreed to work with him and shoot the film in Beijing.

Clearly, it’s a misconception to think that such a film could never be made there.  It can at least if the financing comes from Hong Kong.  “Hundreds of good actors came for the audition,” says Kwan, “without worrying about the film’s subject or my sexuality just because they believed that a good director plus a good story makes a good film.  People tried their hardest to be cast.  In Hong Kong actors would have been worried about their image if they took a gay part.  In China, nobody cared about that, only about its being a good part.”

Kwan says the experience has changed him.  I used to always say that Hong Kong was the most civilized and open-minded territory in all of China, but actually it’s the most conservative,” he points out.  “People say,’Oh, Stanley, you’re so brave!’  But what do they say behind my back.” 

His producer agrees:  “In Hong Kong, now that he’s out, colleagues identify him as a gay director.  But in China people see him as a film director, without regard to his sexuality.”

While the media in Hong Kong and Taiwan have been printing reports of a China Film Bureau crackdown on actors who took part in making Lan Yu, Kwan wants to set the record straight.  The bureau took no action other than to remind Lan Yu’s two male leads to work in the future with Hong Kong filmmakers who have a license to film in China.  In fact, Kwan wants to go back, and so does his Hong Kong financier.  “I’ve formed a company with one of the Lan Yu producers,” Kwan says.  “It’s called Purple Light and will produce young filmmakers in China.” 

In the meantime, he’s taking meetings in Los Angeles.       

Stanley Kwan's "Center Stage" - jstor  excerpt from 21-page essay, Stanley Kwan’s “Center Stage”: The (Im)possible Engagement between Feminism and Postmodernism, by Shuqin Cui from Cinema Journal, Summer 2000 (pdf)

The film structure represents the historical moment when Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997.  Postmodernism is a slippery concept, and the multiplicity of meanings tagged “postmodern” can itself be read as a sign of postmodernism.  As postsocialist (China) and postcolonialist (Hong Kong) societies become ever more involved in the arena of globalization, the notion of postmodernism suggests a consciousness and discourse that break national boundaries.  Thus the contemporary sociohistorical, political, and economic transitions in China and Hong Kong call attention to the geopolitical imagination as a postmodern condition.  Yet the possibility of speaking about China in terms of postmodernism remains controversial.  A self-contradictory society where centralized political power and capitalist economics coexist, China shows signs of postmodern fragmentation:  the transformation of popular culture, spreading commercialization, and application of postmodern ideas in literary and cinematic experimentation.  The return of Hong Kong to China marks a sudden transition from the island’s British colonial past to its future in relation to Chinese communism.  Postmodern consciousness arises at the moment when one discovers that the world has no fixed center and that power relations are volatile in the face of sociopolitical change.

While the concerned public considers the future of Hong Kong since its return to China, serious film productions in Hong Kong have turned to the past, seeking notions of history and identity, questions long ignored in the discourse of Hong Kong.  The mix of popular productions and auteur innovations should be the point of departure for a consideration of Hong Kong cinema.  As Hong Kong reverts to China and its films enter the global market, however, the general audience’s perception of Hong Kong cinema primarily means action or kung fu films.  The hybrid genreAsian martial arts and Hollywood gangster thrillersinvolves an “intricate cultural politics of screening Asian masculinity in the present setting of global entertainment.”  Action films, though dominant among mainstream commercial productions, cannot speak for the diversity of Hong Kong cinema.  Since the late 1970s, a group of auteur directors, including Ann Hui, Yim Ho, and Allen Fong, have sparked an avant-garde of Hong Kong new wave.  Their films, transcending the popular norms, explore sociopolitical transitions, cultural identities, and personal styles.  Following these pioneer auteurs, younger directors such as Stanley Kwan, Wong Kar-wai, and Clara Law have made the exploration more global and psychological.  Diverse in theme and form, the auteur films may be said to share one obsession:  Hong Kong itself as the subject of film production.  For the first time, the subject of Hong Kong provokes complicated feelings, nostalgia for its past, and uncertainty about its future, an instance that Walter Benjamin would have described as love at last sight.

Stanley Kwan, because of his female-centered films, has earned a reputation as a director of “women’s pictures.”  The orientation of Kwan’s cinema towards the feminine and its place in a moment of historical transition calls attention to the interrelations among Hong Kong, gender, and history.  In seven feature films and two documentaries, Kwan takes an unusual slant in examining questions of past and present through articulations of the female image.  Rouge (1987) traces how a courtesan in the 1930s returns as a ghost to modern Hong Kong to look for her lover.  Center Stage (1992) resurrects a missing female star and 1930s film history through a cinematic remake.  In his documentary production Yang and Yin: Gender in Chinese Cinema (1996), Kwan discusses the missing father in his personal life and in Chinese films, exposes his homosexual identity, and expresses his dedication to issues of transvestism and trans-sexuality.  Because putting women into discourse intersects with his reexamination of history, Stanley Kwan’s films situate “women as intrinsic to the development of new postmodern modes of speaking and writing.”

Stanley Kwan | BFI  Kwan’s vote for 10 greatest films in 2012 Sight and Sound Poll

A Brighter Summer Day         1991    Edward Yang
The Conformist                       1970    Bernardo Bertolucci
Death in Venice                       1971    Luchino Visconti
The Godfather: Part I              1972    Francis Ford Coppola
In a Year of 13 Moons            1978    Rainer Werner Fassbinder
The Travelling Players            1975    Theodoros Angelopoulos
Raging Bull                             1980    Martin Scorsese
The Searchers                          1956    John Ford
La Strada                                 1954    Federico Fellini
Tokyo Story                            1953    Ozu Yasujirô

To meet in France one of the most important filmmakers in Hong Kong cinema is an occasion that no one should spoil. This year, The Paris International Encounters of Cinema gave us such a chance, when they invited this famous figure. Together with the invitation to discuss with Stanley Kwan the festival provided an opportunity to discover as well works well know, like Rouge and Center Stage, as less well known like Lan Yu or Hold You Tight, and even his documentary Yang-Yin about "sex-confusion in Chinese cinema".

It was under the sign of affability and exchange (which both are very common in the International Encounters) that was led our interview with Stanley Kwan.

An inventive and sad filmmaker, well known through various international festivals, Kwan has shared with us, honestly, his needs, his passions, and his cinematic influences.

Such an exchange has deeply confirmed our feeling that this artist of deep convictions is surely, between all Chinese cinema personalities, one of whose films, like him, are rich in seeing again.

HKCinemagic: How did your passion for cinema appear, and how did you become a director?

Stanley Kwan: When I was a kid, there was a movie theater next door to us. I went often there to see films. In the beginning, it was Cantonese movies, filmed operas, mélos. Then there has been action films, chivalry films of the Shaw Brothers. Later, I also saw Hollywood films, big shows like Ben Hur [William Wyler, 1959] or The Sound of Music [Robert Wise, 1965]. My parents thought that the movie-theater was a waste of time and of money, and that it could slow down my studies. They did not like my passion. They often scolded me, and even punished me. But I continued to go there. The little pocket money that I had, I spared it to pay my meetings. To satisfy my passion, I had to give up other little childish pleasures such as candies or small toys.

Later, when I began studying journalism and communication sciences, I had access to other types of film, like the French New Wave movies, or Japanese movies. At that time, I didn‘t even dream of becoming a director. It was something unthinkable for me. I went to see Yasujiro Ozu's movies, or Francois Truffaut's as you go on pilgrimage. I dared not put myself in the shoes of these geniuses.  

I had some vague desire to be an actor. In the middle of the 1970s, I applied to the drama court in the TVB chain [In Hong Kong, TVB and ATV channels each possess, since their beginning, a training center for actors. After graduation, the best students are taken under contract by the chain. Stars like Chow Yun Fat, Tony Leung Chiu Wai or Andy Lau come from the famous "nursery" of the TVB.]. But very quickly, I saw that il was not a job for me! So I changed my way, by choosing a career as an assistant director, still within the TVB. I was lucky enough to work on TV movies or series with people like Ann Hui or Patrick Tam, who trained me to become a director. When these directors have left television to become involved in cinema, in the late 1970s, I followed them. From an assistant director on TV movies, then I became an assistant director in films, together with the people who were to create the first New Wave cinema in Hong Kong.  

Eventually, I became a director myself in the mid-1980s, with Women (ren nu xin / Heart of Women 1985, with Chow Yun Fat, Cherie Chung et Cora Miao

HKCinemagic: How came that in your first film, you could shoot with some big stars of the era, such as Chow Yun Fat, Cora Miao, Cherie Chung and Tony Leung Chiu Wai?

SK: In fact, it's because I had known them from before. I worked with them on television, but also on movies in which they played while I was an assistant: Boat People (1982) or Love in a Fallen City (1984) by Ann Hui, for example. You know, at that time, all Hong Kong actors wanted to shoot with the directors of the New Wave, which was popular. People like Wong Kar Wai or myself greatly benefited from the aura of directors with whom they worked. These actors knew me very well, and then, when I proposed my projects to them, they naturally agreed. For them, this was a hand that they gave me. Like me, Wong Kar Wai has been able to make his first films with big actors because they were familiar with his work as a writer on others' films.

HKCinemagic: You mentioned Truffaut. Your first films are precisely tributes to the women. Is this due to your love for cinema, I mean the influence of Ozu and Truffaut?

SK: This is probably not the only explanation. My family background probably played a major role. My father died when I was 13 or 14. I saw my mother, in a single day, suddenly taking the burden of the whole family. She worked hard to raise us. I saw that she was very strong, someone with a lot of inner resources. And there were many women in the home. So my personal experience is probably as important as my love for cinema.

HKCinemagic: What films influenced you mostly?

SK: I love Ozu's movies, because they speak of the family, of the role of women within the family. They remind me of my own story. But to be honest, I don't really have a pattern to make films. If my films often speak of women, it is primarily due to my past and my sexual orientation. Throughout my youth, I could observe my mother and other women of my entourage. The discovery of my sexual orientation has probably also played a role. This identification has been a more or less conscious.

HKCinemagic: Did someone like Sun Yu mark you [1900-1990, great shanghaien filmmaker, pioneer of Chinese cinema.]

SK: You know, it's very difficult for us to have access to his movies, even after the liberalization initiated since 1978. Of course, he shot movies with Ruan Ling Yu as The Small Toy (1930), or with Li Lili, as The Way (1934), but for me, he was fascinated by youthfullness. I don't think he was interested specifically in women. His films possess a great amount of poetry, they reflect the exuberance of youth. When I was preparing Center Stage (1990), I could bring only two of his films in VHS from the Film Archives in Beijing. If I compare him with Ozu, whom I own a lot of movies at home, of course it was Ozu who had the deeper influence on me, not Sun Yu.

Ozu was a filmmaker who treated mostly the family. All his films are centered on family relationships: father-son relationship, mother-daughter, father-daughter, etc. His camera seems to never leave the family cocoon. As someone who has spent his life filming the same subject, he must have had a great passion for this topic. He could not go away from it. Of course, my own experience made me quickly recognize myself in his movies.

While preparing my documentary Yang + / -Ying (1996), I had the opportunity to meet with Hou Hsiao Hsien, who's a great admirer of Ozu too [Hou Hsiao Hsien paid tribute to Ozu with his movie Café Lumière, 2004.] .So we discussed about our passion for this director. We concluded that a good film should be able to translate this idea, which can be said in eight words (or eight characters in Chinese): "Being close with distance, being remote without forgetting. "[ 'Ji jin as yuan, yuan ji jin that"]. Whether Ozu, Hou Hsiao Hsien, or any other great director, I think all this appears clearly in their works. A good director must know how to convey to the public his passion for a given theme, while maintaining a certain distance with his subject. One should not run into the topic. You must be able to get away from time to time, and return at the right time. The distance is necessary if we want to convey the message.

HKCinemagic: You were assistant of directors such as Ann Hui and Patrick Tam. Do you claim to be a member of the New Wave cinema in Hong Kong?

SK: I wouldn't dare to say that I belong to that generation of filmmakers. There have been three "waves" in the recent history of Hong Kong cinema. I rather belong to the third wave. I think I have been very lucky in my journey to become a director. When I became assistant in the TVB, in the late 1970s, I worked with people like Ann Hui, Yim Ho, Patrick Tam or Dennis Yu on TV series, shot in 16mm [generally aired in the weekend] . It was for us almost like movies. When they left the TVB, to make a start in cinema, at the dawn of the 1980s, they founded the first New Wave. The "second wave" was also close of the television, with people like Kirk Wong, Terry Tong Gei Ming, Cheuk Pak Tong, Angela Mak Leng Chi or Chan Chuk Chiu – Yim Ho's wife. You probably know them less well in the West.

"Those were the days of hundred flowers" of Hong Kong cinema. In the 1980s, there was an outbreak of talents. The producers gave a chance to directors who came mostly from television; They were looking for new blood.

The filmmakers of the "third wave" to which I belong began in the shadow of those in the first wave. I have been an assistant for a long time, especially in Ann Hui movies, before shooting my first movie. Wong Kar Wai has been a scriptwriter, especially for Patrick Tam, before he began to shoot his own movies.

HKCinemagic: What's your situation, as an independent filmmaker, in the film industry in Hong Kong , which still favours the commercial "entertainment"?

SK: I still don't know if I have found my place in the Hong Kong film industry! I think that the Hong Kong cinema has always favoured the commercial aspect. Until the late 1970s, before the arrival of the New Wave, all the films produced in Hong Kong focused on the market, aiming for a success at the box office. Whether cape and sword, kung-fu, musical movies, popular comedies, or the erotic films of Li Han Hsian: all were produced in order to earn money first. So I think that all of Hong Kong filmmakers are impregnated by the commercial aspect of the films; They received an education popular and commercial about films. Historically, they're bathing in this commercial environment. Why, for example, are there almost no Hong Kong films dealing with political issues? Why, when Tian Zhuangzhuang was able to make The Blue Kite (1993) in China, and Hou Hsiao Hsien City of Sadness (1989) in Taiwan- two films that deal with the political situation in China or Taiwan in a very acute way, we made almost nothing Hong Kong? It's that we're unable to make such films. But in Hong Kong, before shooting a film, we must think first to its market potential. The commercial aspect of a film is always far more important than its artistic or political ambitions. If the film's subject is suspected not to be able to find his audience, then the movie will never be made! The majority of Hong Kong filmmakers have integrated such a criterion of popular success in their artistic choices. In Hong Kong, we'll always prefer producing genre films like thrillers, comedies, etc., because we know that there's a potential demand from the public for this kind of film. That is the mentality of people who make movies in Hong Kong.

I wouldn’t even dare to speak about my artistic ambitions. It's difficult to exist in the film industry in Hong Kong. As a filmmaker, I try to print a particular style to my movies. Take people like Ann Hui, Wong Kar Wai or myself: from our very beginning, we wanted to shoot with the greatest comedians, because we knew that their names on the bill will allow our films to be distributed properly, and perhaps to meet the success at the box office. It was only after obtaining those actors consent that we can begin to try to impose our own style, our artistic point of view. We remain into the system, while trying to keep us far from the mainstream, both by the topics covered in our movies and by our way of shooting. But it's definitely the success at the box office which gives us the opportunity to make more ambitious films on the artistic level.  

The filmmakers of the Fifth Generation in China, or the Taiwan "authors" can make films with unknown actors, even with "amateurs". This is almost inconceivable in Hong Kong. Of course this kind of films also exists in Hong Kong, but they are very rare.

HKCinemagic: Can you describe the working relationship you have with the actors and the people in the movie industry of mainland China - on Lan Yu (2001), for example?

SK: The Chinese actors are all very good, very professional. The first film I shoot in China was Center Stage (The Actress / Ruan Ling Yu, 1991). It was indeed a "Hong Kong film shot in China," and not a co-production: all the funding came from Hong Kong. At that time, China was still not very opened in terms of co-productions. The administrative procedures were lengthy and difficult. We had to obtain the agreement of the authorities by submitting the script. Then we were allowed by Shanghai Studios to shoot in their premises and with their equipment. As for Lan Yu, it was from the beginning an "underground" project, both by its subject (homosexuality) and its mode of production (our moneylenders knew nothing about cinema). It was clear that the Chinese authorities would not have allowed us to shoot such a film openly.

In recent years, China is much more opened to co-productions with foreign countries. There are many explanations to that. One can say that the Chinese authorities want to attract foreign investment also in the field of cinema. One can also say that the potential of the Chinese market isn't indifferent. Chinese people also want to learn and make progress in film production through collaboration with foreigners. Today, it's longer rare to see films jointly produced by Chinese and Hong Kong, and even productions shared between China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. In this type of associations, each part brings its knowledge and its resources: China brings the studios and the natural settings, Hong Kong brings the funds and the stars of the island, and so on. Today, thanks to this economic opening in the movies field, Chinese or Hong Kong filmmakers find more financial sources for their projects, which can be produced by the China, but also by France, Japan... Overall, there's a greater dynamic in terms of openness and co-production in China.

Take for example the film I just shot, The Everlasting Regrets, with Sammi Cheng, Tony Leung Ka Fai, Daniel Wu. Initially, it was the Chinese producers who contacted me: they had just bought the rights to adapt the novel [written by Wang Anyi edition's note.] and wanted me to make the movie. They expected me to attract the biggest names on the project and to find financial partners in Hong Kong. On the arrival, it's a film financed by both Shanghai and Hong Kong people, with actors from both the island and the mainland [Hu Jun, Su Yan, etc.-edition's note.], very representative of the actual co-productions.

HKCinemagic: Is the film finished?

SK: It is currently in post-production. It should go to Venice at the reopening.

HKCinemagic: Your first films were written by Dai Yau Ping An. He and Yau Kong Kin [author among others works of Ai Nu / Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan, Chu Yuan, 1972– note editor.] are the same person, right?

SK: Exactly. Yau Kin Kong has worked with many directors of the New Wave of Hong Kong, under the name of Yau Dai Ping An. He wrote, for example,Ann Hui's Boat People (1982). He is a great film writer in Hong Kong.

HKCinemagic: You mentioned Center Stage. The role of Ruan Ling Yu should be held by Anita Mui. Why didn't she make the film eventually?

SK: It's Maggie Cheung who played Ruan Lingyu in this movie. I had just finished Rouge (1988) with Anita Mui, and I dreamed of work again with her. By chance, I had the opportunity at that time to attend to a tribute to Ruan Ling Yu from the Film Archives of Hong Kong. Then, I had the idea to make a film with Anita Mui about Ruan Ling Yu's life. I wanted to create a sort of "mirror game" between the fates of these two actresses. Anita Mui was very interested in this project. Alas! During the film preparation, occurred the events of the Beijing Spring. Anita was shocked by what happened to the students on June 4, 1989 on the Tian An Men Square. She sank into a deep sorrow. She was very angry against the Chinese authorities at the time. She stated that she would never work again in China. Yet the topic, the sets and the actors of Center Stage were in Shanghai ... Eventually, Anita Mui renounced to this project.

HKCinemagic: What memories do you have from Anita Mui and Leslie Cheung?

SK: In 2001-2002, I had a film project with them. I wanted to come back to them, and to make a "mirror-film" from our three lives. A kind of "reunion", many years after Rouge. The project could not be achieved because the script was not ready and the budget was probably too high. 

For me, Anita Mui was the best actress with whom I have worked. It was the actress who had the widest range of emotions, expressions. She was very emotional.

Leslie Cheung was really perfect in Rouge. He was a very great artist. But he was also someone who attached a great importance to his image. He controlled himself a lot. He was very demanding on himself. He was perhaps too aware of his talent. If he had been able to "forget" himself a little, he would have had a less tragic fate. I think the disease he suffered at the end of his life was linked to this too great requirement towards himself; he probably set the bar too high ...

HKCinemagic: It seems that in the documentary Yang + / -Ying, shot in 1996, you wanted to push Leslie Cheung to make his "coming out".

SK: The truth is that Leslie Cheung never admitted openly that he was homosexual. He had an ambiguous position on the subject: he said that if you considered him as an homosexual, then such he was, and that he was not upset by this idea...

HKCinemagic:  If you had the opportunity to edit again this documentary, what would you do?

SK: This documentary was commissioned by the British Film Institute, as a part of the celebration of 100 years of cinema. I was offered to shoot a topic about the history of Hong Kong cinema, with a personal point of view. I decided to speak about homosexuality in Chinese cinema. This documentary was aired on television in Hong Kong and elsewhere. It has also been shown in many film festivals. It's almost 10 years old now. It is as it is. I am not one of those filmmakers who edit their films again many years after their release. It is to the public to judge the film now.

HKCinemagic: Has it been easy to convince straight actors to play a gay couple in Lan Yu?

SK: I'll take the risk to surprise you, and say : Ye Liu and Hu Jun, the couple of Chinese actors of the film, had immediately agreed when I proposed the project to them. They liked my work, and they also knew the value of the people who were associated with this project: Jimmy Ngai for the scenario, William Chang [ a essential collaborator in Wong Kar Wai's movies – editor note.] on the art direction and mounting, and so on. The film's budget was very small, but everyone believed in the project. The actors were very professional and the shoot went very well. The film is the adaptation of an homosexual novel, published on the Net [Beijing Story, written by a certain "Beijing Comrade" - the term "comrade" has become nowadays a synonymous with "gay" in China or Hong Kong-edition's note.]. In fact, the book was filled with pornographic passages. Jimmy and I had from the beginning decided to ignore this aspect of the novel to focus on the story, the journey of the characters.

HKCinemagic: Like in Rouge, this passion in Lan Yu was initially included in a ‘commercial' report: it's a link between a son of a good family and a prostitute in one, an affair between a prostitute and a businessman in the other. It's a story which appears very soon like hopeless ...

SK: Love may appear in any circumstances. But it's not because there is a question of money among them that their story is less pure. You can't occult material problems in a couple life. But I didn't think the tragic end of their affair was due to a problem of money.

HKCinemagic: What contemporary filmmakers do you admire? 

SK: To be honest, I don't have a boundless admiration for one filmmaker. I react each time differently. I can love some films, and not others, in a great filmmaker. I love Ozu because I found in him constancy in themes and in style witch both speak to me. I love Jia Zhangke's movies, up to Platform (2000): there was a very fresh look, a way of conducting the story, very touching characters. I admit that I hung very less to his last films. It's a bit the same feeling I can have against Wang Xiaoshuai [its Shanghai Dreams / Hong Qing won the Jury Prize in Cannes this year] For example, I liked The City of Sadness of Hou Hsiao Hsien, for all sorts of reasons. But I don't have a favorite current filmmakers, "a priori". Those for whom I have great respect, as Ozu or Truffaut, had already died.

HKCinemagic: What are your plans?

SK: I have several projects on hold. They will probably be co-productions with China. Because there are now much more financial sources in China than in Hong Kong. The one in which I really put my heart is a filmed biography of Mei Lang Fang, a legend of the Beijing Opera in the last century. I want Tony Leung Chiu Wai to embody him on screen. The achievement of the project will also depend on the agreement of the actors, their planning. I hope to launch the project next year.

HKCinemagic: Do you want to make an action film or a wu xia pian?

SK: I hear this question very often. I'd like actually to make such a film. I want to shoot a remake of an old film of Chang Cheh. When I was a child, I loved to see Chang Cheh's movies, these stories of friendship between two men, in which one is ready to give his life to save another. This manly friendship is not necessarily motivated by homosexuality. For authors such as Chang Cheh, the values of chivalry come from the novel tradition, as in The Three Kingdoms. If I had to make a wu xia pian, I would insist on these aspects, not necessarily from an homosexual point of vue. But of course, people would say, however, that I made a gay movie!

HKCinemagic: Do you want to make a film with western actors, American or European?

SK: I had no such idea at this time to be honest, if I had the choice, I would still make films in China. I would nevertheless try to deal with more universal topics.

HKCinemagic: How do you perceive the tribute made to you this year by the International Encounters of Cinema in Paris?

SK: J I don't know how to answer you! (Laughs)

Compared to the 1980s, its "golden age", the film industry in Hong Kong is much less flourishing today. It's very difficult for a filmmaker to continue to deal with topics of interest without worrying about box office results.  

Take my case. At the time of Rouge, I was under contract, as a director, with Golden Harvest. My work was to shoot the best films I could. I didn't had to take care of the marketing, the distribution. I didn't think about foreign public either. Young people today are "managing directors", probably much more from their first film : they must think about the international potential of their movie, the marketing, they must invest more in the distribution ... The filmmakers from Hong Kong, Taiwan or mainland China are increasingly aware of foreign market for their works. They try to make films less locally rooted, more opened to the world. All filmmakers could do this kind of movies, the question is who will be the best to do that.
To me, to be recognized honoured, at home or abroad, opens of course new perspectives. The potential market of my films will be expanded. I'll have more freedom to choose the stories I like. My projects will be completed with fewer problems ... I am very pleased and touched by the tribute that I received in France.

Films Reviewed

Lan Yu (2001)

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