Fruit Chan was born in 1969 in China, from where his family emigrated to Hong Kong. A director, producer, actor and screenwriter, representing what is known as the Second New Wave of independent Hong Kong cinematography. His films are immersed in an urban climate, for which he often engaged non-professional actors to show in a close-up the life of a modern metropolis. He is interested in social issues and fascinated with the Japanese 1960s avantgarde, for instance the works of Nagisa Oshima.
On the occasion of his retrospective in Five Flavours, we speak with him about his style, working with non-actors, Hong Kong film industry, change and many other topics
I always admired the way realism is channelled through fantasy in your films. Can you tell us a bit about this approach?
It is true, I do not want to go just one way, and deal with a love story, for example, with mainstream style. I have my style; maybe because I grew up in the mainstream industry when I am doing an independent or an arthouse movie, I do not want to bore myself (laughter). Actually, I do not want to bore the audience, this is why I make movies that make me happy. Whenever the narrative is of one style or of a set style, I want to change it, this set style is not acceptable for me. During this year, I made seven independent movies, and slowly, one by one, they began to have the same style already, so I failed.
You have been shooting films since the 80s. In all those years, how do you feel you have changed as a director?
No, I have not changed. But I really want to change. In Hong Kong, shooting independent films is quite difficult so this is why, sometimes, I want to make commercial movies to make money. However, this is not my style, and that is why I return to make my movies independently. However, since we do not have enough money, I can only do small changes. I really want to make a change, but it is difficult. No money, no talk (laughter) I am being realistic about it.
So you thing that the declining of the Hong Kong film industry is due to money?
Now, unless you have a co-production with China, it is very difficult to get money in Hong Kong, particularly if your movie cannot be released in China. It is not the 80s or the 90s anymore, nowadays everybody wants to make movies that will be released in China, that is why local production is so small.
In “The Longest Summer” in particular, but also in some of your other movies, your protagonists result in violence when they feel they are in a dead end. Do you think that this is the main source that creates violence?
I do not feel there is violence in my films. “The Longest Summer” is an exception, it is kind of a mainstream movie. So you have to include some things to please the investor, and action is one of those. “Durian Durian” and “Little Cheung”, for example, are not violent at all, so it is kind of strange for me to hear you make that comment.
Can you tell me a bit about your fascination with prostitutes?
It is not a fascination, it is an “accidental” thought. When I made the trilogy for the handover, in 1997, there were so many prostitutes from China in Hong Kong, all standing in the street, waiting for some kind of business. It was a very interesting time for Hong Kong. Around 2000, many Chinese people, and particularly women, were coming to Hong Kong looking for job and money. So, at that time, I thought that I should make a film about prostitutes, and this is why I shot “Durian Durian”, which was very successful in Hong Kong, and that is why I proceeded in shooting two more films about the same subject. So the second film came very naturally, no planning involved. Talking about prostitution at the time, you had many stories to tell, and I felt that these issues of the time should be made visible to the public, through realism. The phenomenon lasted for 5 years, so there was really a lot of prostitution those days. I was not fascinated with the subject, I just followed society.
Now that the situation between Hong Kong and China is so tense, do you feel a need to pursue these stories?
It is very difficult, because nowadays everybody knows about the relationship between Hong Kong and China. And even if you make a film about the issue, it would be very difficult to release it, because you are talking about political subjects, and at the moment, the political situation is a very sensitive issue. The government kind of pressures you, so the movie cannot be released. Some years ago “Ten Years” was released, which included seven stories talking about this subject, but that’s it, just one. After that, no movies about political subjects were released.
However, a lot of people consider “Three Husbands” a metaphor for Hong Kong’s situation at the moment.
It is a very subtle movie; it is not obvious what issues the film is talking about. We just let the audience guess. That is the fun of it.
Since we are talking about “Three Husbands” can you tell me how was your cooperation with Chloe Maayan? Her part is quite difficult with all those sex scenes.
It is quite interesting. When I met her for the first time, I knew immediately that this girl should be the protagonist of my movie. She has been acting for some years, but mostly had special appearances, not any lead roles. That is why she was looking to have a leading role, so she accepted immediately when I offered her the part and she was very happy. And now, she gets so many roles (laughter).
But wasn’t she uncomfortable with all the sex scenes in the movie?
Actually for her it was very easy, it was difficult for the guys (laughter). She was very happy to be in that movie, so she did not have any kind of negative feelings. She is not shy and she is very professional, and she knew exactly what she had to do and she was very cooperative. The guys however, were a completely other thing, they were very shy and they weren’t sure about what they had to do.
Your films have launched the careers of many actors that you discovered, like Sam Lee, Tony Ho and Wong You-nam. What were for you the benefits of using non -professional actors?
For my independent way, I need actors and actresses who nobody knows, at least. I wanted to get people who are very natural, so the audience does not even consider them acting.
Do you still keep in touch with them?
Yes. Sam Lee will produce a movie and Chloe Maayan will be in there, they just finished shooting in Bangkok. And of course, I have casted the same actors in my movies, it is a low budget issue actually, you always cast your friends (laughter).
Is there someone who stands out?
Sam Lee, but at the moment, he is having a mid-life crisis (laughter). He cannot go back to his first movies, so now I have to look for a new one (laughter).
Your perception and use of the human body is an important part of the narrative and “Hollywood Hong Kong” is one of the films where it is more clearly displayed. The human and social narrative is expressed here mainly through bodies and flesh. Can you explain a bit about this?
When you start writing a script, you already have an image in your mind. So for example in “Hollywood Hong Kong”, if, instead of a fat family everyone was very skinny, like Sam Lee, we would have the same image of characters we had before and I did not want that. That is why I made everybody fat, I wanted to have a presentation that would intrigue the audience to watch the movie. It is same with the protagonist of “Three Husbands”, although in this movie we have different kinds of relations. Every time I make a movie, I think of the image of the characters first, this is my style.
In some of your movies, like “Durian Durian” and “The Longest Weekend” you combine feature with documentary. Is the editing difficult in that regard?
Sometimes not at all, because in Durian Durian for example, there was no script at all, I just wanted to make the girl appear as she is in reality, very true. But, let us forget the prostitution trilogy; “Hollywood Hong Kong”, for example, is pure fantasy, a black comedy, completely different from the films you mentioned. In “Three Husbands”, I am not sure what kind of style I used, but it is definitely not documentary style. What I want to say is that I think about what style fits every movie before I start shooting and this is very important for me. I do not want to follow just one style like Hou Hsiao-hsien, for example. I do not want my movies to be the same, I want to try different styles, but this is very difficult.
Since we are talking about change, could you tell me a bit about your latest film, “Invincible Dragon”?
This is a commercial film, in these kind of films you just obey the investor. It is like we have two brains, one for the commercial films and one for the independent.
But you do not mind shooting commercial films?
I do it to further my career, it is difficult with just independent films. If I had investors outside Hong Kong, that would just fund my independent films, maybe I would not need to shoot commercial movies.
Are there any films you wanted to shoot and you did not manage?
A lot. This is why I told you I need to change my style, to start receiving outside investors. If you fund yourself, you can do whatever you want, but this is not sustainable, so I have to change something and I am ready to do that.
Do you feel that people really change though?
It is very difficult, but I have myself as an example, because I have to change every time I shoot a commercial movie and then go back to my style.
Can you tell me a bit about your work as a producer for “Still Life”?
It was difficult, but easier than my independent films, because we received some funds from the government. I just told her to make the movie without any commercial elements. We had to cut many scenes, for example, there was a love scene which we cut. Sometimes you have to make a choice, I do not want just to please the audience but I think that is why the movie was so successful in Hong Kong, because the audience like to watch movies they have never seen before.
Was it difficult to bring in Anthony Wong for such a small production?
For the director, a bit difficult, because Anthony Wong is a master, but after some direct negotiation, they overcame all issues and he starred in the movie.
Do you feel that there any directors in Hong Kong at the moment that stand out?
Maybe one or two. There are some whose first movie is successful, but their second movie is a problem. There was a movie last year that was successful, although not in the box office, “G Affairs” by Lee Cheuk Pan, but his next movie is not that good. Because first time directors are financed by the Government but after that, just three or four directors shoot good movies, because, due to the lack of other kind of investors, they have to make commercial movies, and the investors try to influence the directors and this often results in movies that are not successful.
Regarding the change you mention, do you have any specific stories you want to tell or a style you want to implement?
As you said, it is very difficult to change yourself. I do not know how to balance this change with my style, but at least I know the production will be bigger. I think that if I have professional actors and actresses, maybe something will change. Also, at the moment you cannot shoot a film about political issues, because investors will not get their money back without any commercial attraction. But maybe if I use a very commercial subject in my style, I can persuade everybody. But it is not easy to do that.
Would you like to comment about the situation to Hong Kong now?
It is very difficult to analyze that because this is one country but two systems that are clashing with each other and it is not easy to make this go smoothly. But in essence, because mainland China is the boss, you cannot do everything that you like to do, you have to obey.