Born in Hong Kong in 1972, Chapman To begun his acting career in television series to subsequently move to cinema in 2000. Since then, he has been working steadily in a mix of comedies and more authorial movies like “Infernal Affairs” I & II, Pang Ho-cheung’s “Isabella”, the “Golden Chicken” series, “Vulgaria” and “Aberdeen”. Due to his support to Hong Kong’s umbrella movement, the Chinese government blacklisted him and he hasn’t been able to work or show his work in Mainland China since.
His directorial debut was “Let’s Eat” in 2016, a Hong Kong/Singapore/Malaysia co-production and he is now at his second work on the director chair with “The Empty Hands”, a story about falling and finding the strength to get up again.
On the occasion of “The Empty Hands” screening at Far East Film Festival, we speak with him about living with a “sickness”, his black belt and being funny but not so handsome.
I was at the press panel earlier and you said you are hangover and bored of questions. So – to make things easier for you, and me – just tell me what you want. Maybe something of this film experience that made you happy?
Good question (he laughs), you choose the right word: experience. The happiest thing was the experience as a whole. I was an actor for more than 25 years and for all that time I considered the shooting set as a place to earn money or as a playground, I never treated it very seriously. And that is not bad; it is just the way it is. But since I became a director it is a totally different story. As an actor, when you have a problem, you are completely on your own, but when you are a director it’s not the same, there are lots of people helping you. Being an actor is a very lonely job to do, but being a director is not. The experience you have is like being in a family, your DoP, your art director, your actors and actresses they are all there to help you. We still have a very strong relationship, even now we still see each other a lot, we have a WhatsApp group, we often have dinner together and this is the most wonderful thing I’ve ever had. The experience.
And did being actor and director at the same time enrich the experience?
It’s easy, very easy, you just focus on the directing work and leave the acting, very easy. In fact, if you see my acting in “The Empty Hands” is shit!
Noooo, come on!
Yes, yes, I was just waiting for the cut, every shot.
Did you give the cut to yourself?
God, that was weird! I just acted (he freezes in a pose for few seconds) and then: “cut”. I don’t check my own acting – you know – it s just a waste of my time.
Your sense of humour is quite sharp today!
Oh, it’s just because I was doing the panel with director Derek Chiu (“No.1 Chung Yin Street”). He is a very serious person so it’s easy to be funny near him; otherwise I am not that funny!
Now that you are an actor, producer, director, writer, you don’t seems to be too bigheaded about it, you don’t really act like a celebrity, like Andy Lau for example (ironically). You are quite humble (even more ironically).
Oh that’s easy, that is because I am not as handsome as Andy Lau. When you are handsome like him you have to concentrate on your look. I am lucky, I am not handsome (we all laugh) I am a bit handsome but not so much. I am not ugly, I know this, but not very handsome.
And being only a bit handsome, how do you balance all your other talents?
Easy! Even if you have five girlfriends, there is always one that is your favourite. That keeps you going.
Which one is your favourite girlfriend?
Acting is my wife, directing is my favourite girlfriend. Acting, like a wife, is always there, it’s the one you don’t need to take care of, just focus on the girlfriend! That’s all. (we laugh)
Who was he the most influential or inspirational director in your career?
I actually thought it would be Wong Kar-wai when I was young. I admire him a lot, I am a big fun of Wong Ka-wai, and I love his movies, even more than Johnnie To’s movies. But then when I became a director I discovered that I had been influenced by a different director (To) even more. It’s weird, I don’t know why, it just happened. I cannot say that “The Empty Hands” is “inspired” by To’s “Throw Down”; it is totally copied from “Throw Down”! I can say this is a very good arrangement – I must thank Sabrina (Baracetti, president of FEFF) – that my movie is shown in Udine the day before “Throw Down”, so everybody is going to notice that it is totally copied from it!
What about Herman Yau?
We are very good friends, we work together and I have been co-writing the script of “The Empty Hands” with his regular collaborator Erica Lee, she was very helpful.
So, why a movie about karate?
I am a very big fan of Japanese culture. I also like Chinese Kung Fu very much, but I don’t practice it or know it. I have done a movie about karate because I know karate. It’s that simple. I have been practicing karate since 2010. At that time, my very good friend Herman Yau asked me to learn karate in preparation for a possible role in a film. After 6 years, I finally got the black belt in karate and I asked him about the movie, but he said he is still preparing it. So we haven’t shot that film (yet) but I got the black belt out of that. I always wanted to make a Japanese movie, I don’t know why, so I asked my art director to help me make a Japanese movie. A proper Japanese movie, not a movie “like” a Japanese movie; there is a big difference.
And so you casted a veteran Japanese martial artist
Yes, Mr. Yasuaki Kurata is my karate teacher, I just sent him a WhatsApp and he was on board. It is very difficult to work with your teacher but – lucky me – he is also a very professional actor at the same time and we discussed the role and he gave me many useful suggestions.
Stephy Tang is very believable too, although she usually works in romantic movies.
She practiced for 6 months to prepare for the role; it was difficult for her. You know, Hong Kong actresses are usually very lazy, they always have the excuse that they don’t have time to prepare for the role, although they have time for their personal life! So I really appreciate what Stephy has done for us. She is known for very different roles but my secret was to get her when she’d just broken up with her boyfriend. When actresses are happy and in love they just smile, but she was angry and that was good for the role.
What can you tell us about the choice of mixing classical sonatas and Japanese traditional music for the soundtrack?
I always listen to classical music, especially when I drive, it keeps my temper at bay, it keeps me calm, so it was a natural choice. You have to put some music in a film, so you can put your life music.
It is very powerful and evocative.
Thank you. Especially the music on the opening titles (they run over a black and white clip of Yasuaki Kurata practicing karate in the middle of swaying silver grass). That piece is called “Winter”, very apt, as I thought that was the winter of that character, like the winter of his life, and so I’ve used “Winter”.
It was beautiful and it reminded me of Sanchiro Sugata, Kurosawa’s first movie.
Oh, yes, Kurosawa, I have copied from him too. There is a seen in one of that movie, at the end, where the sensei is waiting for his opponent in the grass in a windy day and the clouds move like crazy. I wanted to copy that seen. And I copied it.
No, you must say “channel”! We say “channel” in London instead of “copy”. Like: “I’ve channeled Kurosawa”
No, no, I’ve copied him, totally! I’m a copycat!
On a serious note, few years have passed since the episode of the blacklist and the ban to the China Market. How are you now? How did you cope?
If you get sick for few months, it would be very painful to get used to the sickness, but if you are sick for years (and he stresses “years”) you almost forget what being healthy means. Living with your pain is a very important thing to learn. To live with your cancer, to live with your pain. I got used to it, I forgot how I’ve lived before! So, I am a very good sick person, I’ve already got used to my sick life and I am not sorry for myself.