Derek Chiu was born in Hong Kong in 1961, he studied foreign languages and literature at National Taiwan University. After returning to Hong Kong, he gained experience working in television. In 1992, he directed his first film, “Pink Bomb,” then often collaborated with Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai shooting three films for their Milkyway Image film company. More recently, he served as a producer on the highly successful “Mad World,” directed by Wong Chun. Derek Chiu is currently an associate professor at School of Creative Media at the City University of Hong Kong.
On the occasion of No. 1 Chung Ying Street screening at Five Flavours , we speak with him about the difficulties he met in completing the film, the casting , the music, his future plans, but above all politics, including the recent event at the Golden Horse Awards.
Can you tell us about how “No. 1 Chung Ying Street” project started?
It was in year 2010, an old friend of mine introduced to me Mr. Yeung, who was a young prisoner and “leftist” at the riot of 1967. He told me that he wanted to make a movie about 1967, telling the young prisoner’s lifelong experiences and also one of the most important part of Hong Kong history. He was a pretty successful businessman at that time and he could invest some money to that movie. Since I have great passion on social issue films, I was very interested in his idea. Then I started to write the script with my scriptwriter and published a book and raised money…….
Can you tell us about your problems in financing your film? Why was your application for funding rejected and what did you do next?
In the very beginning, the investment from Mr. Yeung was 3M HK dollars. It was not enough, so we applied for the government film development fund. The plan was : one third from Mr. Yeung, one third from government, one third from a friend of mine in film industry. This friend is a famous actor but he doesn’t want me to disclose his name. Optimistically, my total budget was 3+3+3= 9M. Unfortunately, the government rejected my application saying that the commercial value of the film is not sufficient. Knowing the result from government, Mr. Yeung tried to quit the project. After a strong argue, he only promised to invest half of his original plan that is 1.5M. The actor also deducted his investment to 1.5M. I had only 3M instead of 9M budget to finish the movie. Many crew members are voluntary and I also recruited many young students to do the job.
Could you give us some details about the casting process of the film?
In the beginning, I tried to approach some of the more popular actors in Hong Kong, some big stars, but it did not work, for political reasons. Most of the young artists told me, “we love the script, but we do not want to get involved in politics, we don’t want to anger the Chinese Government ” , that was the most common answer. And even some senior members of the Hong Kong movie industry, who are good friends of mine, when I first called them they told me “if it is your movie, I will be part of it even with no money” but after I told them the story, they said, “I am sorry, I don’t want to be involved in the politics”. (laughs) And I told them that everything is politics, the housing in Hong Kong being so expensive, for example, is politics. You come from Greece, you know everything is politics. And so I asked them, “why are you afraid to be political?” And the answers I received were even ridiculous, for example one quoted the Bible: “Jesus told me not to disobey the authorities” (laughs). “Wow! Really?”, “Maybe it was someone else and not Jesus”, is what I told him. And again, that is why I am saying Hong Kong people are very practical. Because they think that if they get involved in the politics, the Chinese government may be angry.
The ones you actually cast for the film, did they have any issues after the screening of the film?
No, I don’t think so. But this is a very good question. Because one of the protagonists, Neo Yau, in the beginning, he loved the movie, he loved the script and also loved his role. He was so happy when we finished the movie and won the award in Osaka. But after that, somebody told him to be careful, because he is being used to portray some kind of political view, and he got scared. So, after that, he rarely showed up for promotional events.
Can you tell us a few things about the music in the film, which I felt is a very important part of the narrative?
My music director, Edmund Leung is also an independent singer, I love his music. And also he is very good in playing the tin drum, in Hong Kong he is one of the best and his group, “The Interzone Collective” are great. I heard of his music a lot and he was actually very involved in the Umbrella Movement, so that is why when I told him about the movie and the script, he was so excited to be part of the film. And when we finished the movie and included the music, we saw the first cut with music, he was so excited he stood up and cheered (laughs). And we are going to release the music of the film as soundtrack.
In the first arc of the film, in the 60’s, even the students were very political. They were discussing politics, fighting about politics… Is this the case with Hong Kong youths now?
In 1967, not many young people were political, only people who were instigated towards politics, maybe from their parents, maybe from unions maybe from communist ideology. Because at the time, Hong Kong was separated into two very different political parties. One party was pro-Communist and one pro-Taiwan, pro Kuonmintang and there were constantly fights between these two sides, since one party wanted to join China and the other Taiwan. That is why in Hong Kong we have two different people. My father was pro-communist party but some of them were pro-Taiwan party. So, at the time, most of the young people went to the streets inspired by the communist party. But other young people did not care about politics. After the 60s and the 70’s, most young people do not care about politics, they just want to have many things, they are very materialistic. And now, after the handover, many young people have this feeling about mainland China, because they try to control freedom of speech, control the election, and thus many more young people are interested in politics again, so this is the background.
And why did the public opinion changed so much from the 60’s, when most people were pro-China, against the British, and now is the complete opposite?
In the 60’s, there were many issues with the British rule, they created a very unfair society, because they thought British were the upper cast and Chinese the lower cast. So a lot of people were unsatisfied by the British rule at the time. But not many people went on the street, only those inspired by the Unions or the so-called Patriotic Party; but now it is totally different. Because after the rule of British for more than 100 years, Hong Kong people have adopted western values like democracy and freedom of speech, and the freedom to vote, and that is the kind of education they have. And even though under the British rule we did not have so much democracy, we had freedom, we could talk about anything, as a film director, you could make any kind of movie. But after the handover, there seems to be a big change, the Chinese government tries to put their hands more and more in Hong Kong, and that is why many people turned against the Chinese government, and sometimes people, even me, call them “the good times of the British rule”. Under the British rule, I do not think everything was perfect, but Hong Kong was so open at the time, and during the British rule, Hong Kong became such an open society and also rich and maybe materialistic, but we could talk about anything we liked, read anything we like, find any kind of information, but now the freedom is less and less and I do not even know when we are not going to be able to go to Facebook or WhatsApp etc.
At one point in the film, they call the policemen “Yellow Skinned Dogs”. Why is that?
At the time, some of the policemen were British, some were Chinese. They called the latter yellow skinned dogs, because they served the British side but had yellow skin.
In my opinion, one of the most dramatic parts of the film is that the activists in both time frames, lose, in essence. They get beaten, they get arrested, they do not succeed in their purpose. Is this one of the comments you wanted to make with the film?
You are right. In 1967, the movement, the riot, whatever you want to call it, was a failure, because most of the people involved were arrested and also the Beijing government did not endorse their behaviour, neither, of course, the British or the Hong Kong government. They were young people and they were actually being used, but after they grew up, some of them they are at their 60s now, they consider that they have been betrayed by the Beijing government. Because at that time, they were thinking, “I serve you, I am working for you and I love my country, but I am the recipient of such behaviour and I am being imprisoned and you have done nothing to recognize my behaviour”.
So this was a total failure but I think the events of the time forced the British Government to change in Hong Kong, to make a big change. 1967 is actually a boundary in the history of British rule, because after that, the British government made a lot of reforms to make Hong Kong better. They built public housing, they invested in social welfare, they started treating workers better, there were big changes. That is why you cannot say it was a total failure, it is hard actually to say if it was a success or a failure. For the people involved in the riots, and some other people, it was a failure, and there are many who actually hate them, because they caused a lot of violence, they even threw bombs on the street and killed people. So after their violent behavior, many Hong Kong people changed their attitude and started calling them “the leftists” and having no sympathy for their actions. But actually, their behaviour really caused some change in Hong Kong, although, in retrospective, is hard to say who is good and who is bad.
After 2014, the Umbrella Movement… it is a good time to talk about this, because yesterday (November 19), nine leaders of the Umbrella Movement were accused for causing social disorder in Hong Kong, just now, after all these years. Some of them are very well-educated, some of them are members of the Parliament now, and they all pleaded not guilty. Many young people in Hong Kong felt disappointed and powerless, because even though it was such a big movement, nothing changed and things became even worse. So this is the biggest thing in Hong Kong now, many people just feel hopeless. Even in the demonstrations now, less and less people go into the street. In 1989, a million of Hong Kong people went on the street to protest against the Beijing government, due to the Tienanmen Massacre. In 2007, the Chinese government tried to pass a law to control Hong Kong people, kind of a security law, and almost half a million of Hong Kong people went to protest against it. In 2014, during the Umbrella Movement, tens of thousands of people went to the streets and occupied Central. But after 2014, less and less people are eager to go to the streets to protest.
Do you think the majority of Hong Kong people supported the Umbrella movement?
I have to say it was 50-50. Because Hong Kong people are very practical, in the beginning of the movement, more than 50% supported it, but after they occupied it for a long time, disorder and much inconvenience was caused, and after that a lot of people changed their opinion. They started saying, “you don’t need to occupy the streets, we can just talk”. After the Umbrella Movement, many people were depressed to see that nothing can change, and that is why I can say 50-50.
In the second part of the film, the protagonist wears some very interesting T-shirts. One of them spelled “Civil Disobedience” for example. What is the meaning of this.
Because most of the young people in the Umbrella Movement did this to explain their behaviour. They thought, yes we are illegal, lying on the street and halting traffic is illegal, but this is illegal in a good way, it is civil disobedience
Can you comment on what happened on The Golden Horse Awards a few days ago?
I think it is ridiculous, totally ridiculous. Both sides are ridiculous. For the Golden Horse, they know that every guest that goes on stage can say anything. They cannot limit their speech. But most of the jury are from China, the chairman is Gong Li. I don’t know why they chose Gong Li to be the chairman. They know that their ideology is completely different. I am a director in Hong Kong and even I know what they are thinking. They are controlled by the ideology control departments in China. I think if you picked someone like that to be the chairman, you should expect that something will go wrong. Some of the Taiwanese directors and actors actually keep quite because they earn a lot of money in China, but there are so many Taiwanese that support the independence of Taiwan. So the director of the documentary saying something about the independence of Taiwan is actually not a big surprise.
When people are saying, “cinematic arts are nothing about politics, don’t mix up these two things together”, I think it is total bullshit. I mean the subject of the documentary is politics, so you can imagine that they will talk about something like that. And you find it a big surprise that something like that happened? That all the Chinese artists and even the Korean are boycotting the ceremony and the party? I think all this is ridiculous.
But they have reasons to be afraid, right? Particularly after what happened with Fan Bingbing, for example.
It is only a phone call. They call and say, “don’t go to the party, don’t go to the ceremony”. For Chinese directors, Hong Kong directors and Taiwan directors it is such a shame, because freedom of speech and freedom of expression is so important in cinema. But I realize that all the artists from China have to do this, they don’t have any choice. Even though they may be thinking why should someone not be able to talk about independence, they cannot actually express this thought, they have to follow the “guidelines”. I think the whole thing is a shame.
Can you tell me about your future projects?
I am on the early stages of a script about a movie star. She used to be a very famous one when she was 16, but now she is not, although everybody knows her. So, I am trying to make a story about how her life is now, and about the film industry and Hong Kong at the 80’s and I am trying to combine all these elements.
Is it a real story?
It is a real story but we adapted it