Young directors Michelle Hung (“Little Shop of Horrors”) and Ashley Cheung (“Life on the Line”), cinematographer Eric Tsang (“Liu Yang River”) and their short movies are part of the Hong Kong 2017 Fresh Wave Short Film Competition. Now at its 11th edition, Fresh Wave is an independent organization founded by Johnnie To, to fund Hong Kong young talents in film-making, showcase their projects and give them a truly effective platform to start their career from. Fresh Wave Alumni includes Jevons Au of “Ten Years” and “Trivisa”, and Wong Chun of multi-awarded Mad World.
On the occasion of their films screening at Five Flavours Film Festival in Warsaw, we speak with them about their experience in Hong Kong as young, independent filmmakers, their inspirational directors and their short movies in the Fresh Wave competition.
Let’s start with some general questions for all of you. It looks like in Hong Kong at the moment there are a bit more opportunities for young filmmakers, like the Fresh Wave ISFF and the First Film Scheme from the government. The other day, we were talking with Roger Lee, he is a big advocate of Fresh Wave and he was saying that life for young film-makers is better now. Is it true? What is your opinion about it?
Ashley: We have a bit of space in Hong Kong for political movies, there is a film called “Even Ants Strive for Surviva”l (REN Xia) that won Best Director and Best Cinematography Fresh Wave ISFF 2017 and the story is a bit like 1984, a dystopia, set in the future. Hong Kong people still have some freedom of expression, even if we don’t know how long for.
Eric: The government supports the larger commercial movies but for independent movies we still have limited resources, I think Fresh Wave is the only support we have. Fresh Wave is actually a private company now. So the government supports a bit but not enough, not like in Taiwan for example where there is availability of government funding for independent film-makers and their works. We have only the First Film scheme but they can fund only two first features per year, therefore we are left with private enterprises or Fresh Wave.
Michelle: Fresh Wave is the only institution that can provide funding to start a production, while with private enterprises you must develop their projects. I think there is room for improvement and helping, for example you need lots of permits to film in public areas and the government could help making it easier.
There are quite a few big directors at the moment that have turned (or are working now as) producers (Peter Chan with “Soul Mate”, Chapman To, Derek Yee with “Somewhere Beyond the Mist”, Johnnie To), do you think this shift of the old generation could help young directors?
Michelle: Yes, I think many directors or famous actors recently begun to produce movies of younger directors, like for example Sung Kee Chiu is one of the producers of “Mad World” that won the Best Film Award. I think this is a good sign, that people of the older generation are supporting the new one.
Eric: It’s always easier when you have big names in the team and it helps young directors, but it’s also very important that they give them (the young directors) complete freedom, otherwise it’ pointless.
Do you think that having big names in the production could kill the freedom of action?
Eric: Yes, but it depends, some of them give freedom but others want to have lots of control. Some of my friends are working with big names of Hong Kong Cinema and some of them have freedom but some other don’t, it depends on the person’s attitude.
Are there any “Big Names” you would like to work with?
Eric: Ann Hui (He laughs, he had told me earlier he also likes slow cinema and Edward Yang). She is an intellectual director and this is not too common in Hong Kong. She is very natural and her work is also historically important and she is a cultural person, I would love to work with her!
Have you seen her latest, “Our Time Will Come”?
Eric: Of course I have. I loved it.
Ashley: About me, the director I like most is Johnnie To, he is also the chairman of the Fresh Wave ISFF. I like many films of To, from his old movies, like, I don’t know the title in English, the one that talks about Judo…
“Throwdown”, one of my favorite To’s movies too!
Ashley: Yes! It is very stylish, a bit like an American film, but I also like its tone and the characters. In fact, one of the things I appreciate most in To’s films is the character portrayal in his films, and in this one too I like the characters, very physical, and their personal traits. And that is why I like a lot of Milky Way films!
I could guess from your movie that you like Milky Way!
Ashley: Yes (she laugha), so “Throwdown”, “PTU”, and of the most recent ones I loved “Life Without Principle” and its sarcasm about the money word. I really like many of his films.
And you Michelle? I remember last year at London CVF you mentioned that you like Fruit Chan of the past but that you are not very happy with his recent, more commercial movies.
Michelle: Yes, but actually he is also very supportive with newcomers, currently there is another project going on, they haven’t started shooting yet, it’s another name from the First Film Scheme, a young female director that I personally know and he is producing her, so I think he is actually doing something for the youth. I don’t know the exact title of this film as it is in its very early stage.
I will look forward to it then. Now, something more specific about your personal movies. Eric, you did the cinematography for “Liu Yang River” then won the Best Film, how was your collaboration with the director Jun Li, did you work smoothly together?
Eric: He is actually my friend, we studied in the same University, he is few years younger than me. I knew already what he wanted, but because it was his very first feature, it took a bit to get the hung of it, to direct and make decisions. On my side, I concentrated on the cinematography and did my best. I had some wishes; I wanted the film to have long takes and that the rhythm would’ve been slow. He accepted almost all my requests, so I was happy to work with him.
It is beautiful and it is cleverly shot in that tiny space. Any cinematographer that inspired you?
Eric: Mark Lee Ping-bing! He is my idol!
Ashley, you took some topics of classic Milky Way movies to create a typical revenge melodrama, but then you gave it a moral twist.
Ashley: Yes, I used to study philosophy and I have always been attracted to moral dilemmas. My favorite is the Trolley Problem, where you are asked what is the most ethical choice between doing nothing and have 5 people killed by a trolley or diverting it but having one person killed … These are the kind of dilemmas I like, about split-second choices in life. The Chinese title is something like «A Moment of Decision» I always liked the idea that every second there is a choice for us and so I combined this idea and the moral dilemma. Also, a few years ago I worked in a suicide help line (like the protagonist of her movie) so I didn’t need to do lots of research, I already had the material.
I saw you did the script as well as the directing and editing. Is there one of these roles you prefer and would like to pursue?
Ashley: I think there are pros and cons in doing these three things together. I work already as a scriptwriter for feature films and I think that if you – as a director – have another person writing the scrip, it could be a source of lots of new ideas, even if there could be arguments, it’s like a chemical reaction and it makes the script better. But this time, because it was my story and I really liked it, I wanted to write my own script.
Michelle, you choose to shoot a genre movie. Is horror something you love or you used it a device to pass a message?
Michelle: I didn’t have a specific message to pass on, I am just a fan of the genre. I love Japanese Mangas and cartoons and I also like Western films like the Italian Giallos so I put all these things I love together to create my own style.
Did you write the script as well?
Michelle: Yes, I did. The story wasn’t very clear in my mind at the beginning, it started with just some tiny feelings, the sensation of itchiness under the skin, like when you sit on your legs for too long and when you get up you get that sensation like something crawling. I was wondering if it is possible that some sort of insect could live under our skin, so I just went from there and cut up the story.
There is some good sound design in your movie.
Michelle: Yes, I was experimenting and playing with sounds.
Did you have any challenging moments in the realization of the movie?
Michelle: I think it was difficult for my actress to get into the very hysterical stage. Also, at the beginning it was very hard for me to convince my crew members that this story would work, because the plot could sound funny and if I didn’t realize it well it would have been a joke, like a comedy, so it was pretty challenging to make it work.
The actresses are very young, how did you cast them?
Michelle: I found Molly, the main character, on social networks, on Facebook precisely, as she is a model and she has established herself on the socials. The other girl is a student of the Drama School. I chose them as I found a very eerie quality in both of them and I think Molly has a cartoon-like image, a very innocent feeling so you wouldn’t think she could do something so gruesome.
Ashley, the actress of your movie is more experienced, she is quite well known for her TV work, isn’t she?
Ashley: Yes, she is quite famous, she started very young at 15 and she appeared in many short independent movies and in Hong Kong she is famous as the «Queen of Indie Movies». She is now doing more commercial TV stuff, but she still have that indie spirit in her and that is why when I approached her and showed her the script, she liked it and she was happy to cooperate with me even if I had a very limited budget as for Fresh Wave usually is.
What about Rain Lau, the actress in Jun Li’s movie «Liu Yang River»? Was she difficult to approach, as she is a well established actress?
Eric: We didn’t do casting because the director had a very precise idea while working on the script. So he contacted the actors he had in mind and sent them the script, and they said yes immediately as they liked the story. It was easier than we thought. Actually, lots of well-known actors in Hong Kong are very supportive with independent directors as long as they like the script.
Was it easy working with her?
Eric: It was easier than expected. But still we had some difficulties because they are too experienced and they have their own personal way of acting, but on the other hand you can communicate well with them and they make adjustments.
Last thing I would like to ask you all is about your future plans and if Fresh Wave has helped you in any way, so far.
Michelle: I don’t have a plan for the future yet, but I think Fresh Wave and going around all these festivals has given me a sense of recognition of what I have done and I really appreciate this.
Did you work already in the film industry before Fresh Wave?
Michelle: Yes, I work in a production design team.
Ashley: I was her colleague in the last feature film we worked on. It was a film by Wong Wai-kit, one of the directors of “Trivisa”. A few months ago, he produced his first feature film and I was the scriptwriter and Michelle was in the art department and so we were colleagues. Right now, because I recently worked for the movie “Vampire Cleanup Department” and one of its two directors just got the funding for his first feature film so I am going to work on the script of it.
Eric: I have participated in Fresh Wave almost every year since 2013, in different roles, director, producer, cinematographer. This year I will direct a film. It is a good platform to gain experience to make short movies, but maybe in the coming one or two years I will try to make a feature film.
Good luck to all of you!