Born in 1984, studied design at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and media studies at Hong Kong University. She worked as a screenwriter, editor, and assistant director. Her first short feature was awarded at short film festivals in Hong Kong and Taiwan. She worked with Pang Ho-cheung writing the script for “Love in a Puff” (2009), one of the biggest hits of Hong Kong box office, which has already had two sequels and was named the best script at Hong Kong Film Awards.
She directed six features, made music videos and commercials. “Mad World” is her debut as a producer. The film premiered at Toronto FF, received a number of nominations and awards (including at festivals in Osaka, Hong Kong, Golden Horse Awards in Taiwan and Hong Kong Film Awards).
On the occasion of Mad World screening at Five Flavours we talk with her about how the “Mad World” project took off, the moral responsibilities of a filmmaker, extending the film’s life and doing something for the next generation.
You come from a background in design studies. Was there a particular event or person that introduced you to the film industry?
Oh! This is a long story (she laughs). I studied visualization and my major is in graphic design. Actually I really wanted to be a child book illustrator, that was my dream but my tutor told me my drawings were not for children, they were too dark and scary. That was a real shock for me, and he advised me to explore different areas. At the time, I used to work with photography to support myself at the University. When I was studying, I learned new techniques of video making, stop motion animation and explored more and more about moving images. I did lots of experimental movies and my tutor suggested me to do something with motion as he found my work inspirational. It was a trauma giving up drawing but at the City University I also studied a lot of storytelling that included script-writing, editing, directing, and that focused and drove my interest into directing and character study. It is very different from just closing the door and drawing and working alone, as it is more a teamwork, getting people together and managing a project.
In the film industry, you are a very versatile and hard working person, you adopted many roles, writer, director, producer. Is there one you particularly enjoy and you want to pursue more, or you like the idea of keeping your options open?
Actually, I don’t have a proper name for myself in the movie industry but I found a new term, “slash” (people with slash careers are those making multiple income streams simultaneously from different careers). We are all taking different roles in movies in Hong Kong and considering the budget, we try to make the most of it. But for me taking new roles, directing, producing, means that I can learn more, have the whole picture and see how I can come out with something that has good quality but with a controlled budget. And this is something that a small budget director needs to know because we can of course make commercial movies with big budget, but this is not the case with a story like “Mad World”. When I did my first movie in 2012, I tried to learn more and more about producing and administration because, as a director, you can go crazy and create something you really want but how to make it and how to organize everything is fundamental. So I worked with big producers to learn that. I think that producing together with creating, is a miracle. In Hong Kong, lots of people think producing and directing are in conflict, one against each other, when instead the producer facilitates and allows the creation. I am trying to learn more and more about the bases of producing a film and train others and create a good group to merge everything with creativity.
And was being a woman challenging in this contest in Hong Kong?
(She laughs) I am often facing this question. Actually, I got in this industry wen I was 21 and everybody was asking me if I faced any sort of discrimination, but actually, the real problem that I was experiencing was being very young and very inexperienced, being discriminated as a woman is not a problem I am facing. In my city, they are not openly discriminating you because you are a woman or gay or lesbian, but they strongly discriminate lazy people. So I am trying to work harder and harder and try to forget anything that is caused by my gender. I just keep going. On the other hand, I think that being a woman is an advantage when dealing with actors because we have a gentler way to communicate and more empathetic. But then, I am not totally sure it is a matter of gender, probably it’s just being a more compassionate person and put your heart in communication.
Now about Mad World. Can you tell us how you got involved in this project?
The director (Wong Chun) is a schoolmate and friend of mine, we met in 2012, I had just started my own production company Dumb Youth, I was doing lots of advertising and I asked him to help me with a project and that is how we met. He then asked me to help him with the casting of the Fresh Wave video he was filming (the short film “6th of March”) and I introduced him to the main actor. We became very good friends and talked about our projects and collaboration, we also rented a studio together in 2014. Then the First Film Fund invited our school, the City University, and our teacher Patrick Tam recommended Wong Chun. He was struggling at the time, like many young filmmaker in Hong Kong, he was juggling lots of jobs, writing for other people and doing lots of other jobs. You can’t survive in Hong Kong doing only one thing and so he really took a chance and when he had a script in hand he asked me for an advice and I told him to let go everything and just go ahead and that I would help him. We didn’t really talked about roles or positions; I was more like a consultant and advisor.
So you never had any hesitations at the beginning?
No, he was 26 when he started this project and I often wonder, if I had a chance at his age, would I have had the courage to take the chance. I actually did my first movie when I was 21 but there is a big difference, when you are so young there are still risks involved but it is less of a burden if you fail. He was a man with a family; there is a big difference. My advice to him was: “do something that you won’t regret”. I remember in 2015 he asked me to go to the press conference for the launch of “Mad World”, we had never talked about my role, we have a unique relationship, I feel I am his advisor, I am like his older sister and in addition we have a school bond as we are both City University Alumni. So it’s something more than just director and producer, there is a great creative interaction between us.
And what about the big stars of the movie? Was it difficult to get them on board? Were they your first choice?
After reading the script, the director had Eric Tsang in mind for the role and I helped him with that, I had known Mr Tsang for many years because my first movie was produced by him. He also went to Derek Tsang (Eric Tsang’s son) to ask him to take the role of the son, but Derek said: “No, please don’t make me work with my father!” (we laugh) But as a plan B, he would have liked to have Shawn Yue and so Derek helped him to contact him. Mr Tsang hesitated a bit at first, he was a bit afraid to get such a dark and depressing role. He asked us 15 days to think about it and we told him our situation, that we didn’t have much money and we couldn’t afford a normal payment. So he suggested that we signed a kind of contract stating that they weren’t taking any money at that stage but that they would get a commission when the movie was released. Also, Mr. Eric Tsang, after reading the script and he really wanted to have Elaine Jin as Tung’s mother and so he helped us to call her and convince her to participate to the project.
That was a very helpful and generous move!
Yes, indeed! Additionally, it was a project supported by the First Film Fund and we weren’t allowed to have investors. So, the actors never talked about the payment, but they were very interested in the characters and how to portray them, we talked a lot about the meaning and the message of this film. We all live in this fast-paced city, in these small flats, and what happens to a bipolar disorder patient in this environment? The director and the writer have done lots of research and it was a long and difficult process to evaluate the moral side of every word of every line, always balancing and trying to avoid anything that could be immoral or unfair to the patients.
We have seen with Mad World that you don’t need a charming subject to gain public interest and success. Do you think this is down to the big actors that are in the movies or down to a good script?
The success of “Mad World” exceeded the expectations of all of us and I really think this comes from a good script and good storytelling, there are no other reasons, it is a success because it is a good story, told in a right way. It was a 4-year project and all the members and crew were very loyal to the script and I am very touched by this. They just did anything they could for this project. It’s about studying sincerely and honestly the subject, and spend lots of time of your mind and heart on the subject. Sometimes you have to put all your life and dedication in a project without knowing if there is going to be a reward. We always had in mind why we started and the problems of our city, high density, housing, living in a city where heath care lays off patients because there is no physical space. In the film industry, when we see something really wrong, we should face it, we cannot turn our back on it. Facing it is the beginning of the solution. A movie has its own life, it’s not the director’s life or the scriptwriter ‘s life. In China, we think any life is affecting or influencing other lives. So does this movie, lots of characters in this movie, even the smallest one are real Hong Kong people and they are part of the whole picture. Everyone deserves a decent and respectful life.
Have you got future plans?
Regarding “Mad Word”, we are still working on the movie, as there is the DVD release now. We really want to extend “Mad World”, making it last longer so that people can have more chances to see it and we are thinking about a book about it maybe, including also some patients’ and doctor’s testimonies. We want to extend the life of this movie.
About myself, I am writing my own script. I have suffered from depression in 2012.
Oh, I am sorry to hear this.
Thank you. When we are facing the so-called Black Dog, it is not really how to get away from it or to pat it or control it, but stay along with it, just trying to understand why you are so sensitive to everything. This is not a responsibility of a film-maker in the society but it is as a human being that you have some responsibilities to know why we are here and why everyone is here, to know why something happens in a way that we cannot understand. We’ve never heard of this before and it happens in a non-logical way but we must try to be sensitive and focused on how to be critical to ourselves and to the world and carefully look at the details that might affect the future of our generation. I always think we are here because we are bringing happiness and something good to the next generation. As a filmmaker, I am trying to deal with what I think it’s not moral. At the moment I am doing some paid jobs and in the meantime I am writing my script, until I think those projects and stories are good and then I will find the way to make them. I have some projects in hand about youngsters. My interest and my thinking are about the next generation and young people. They have always been, since the very beginning of my career. About how what we do now can influence the future.