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Hong Kong Wasteland: An Interview with Soi Cheang

A retrospective in Vienna gives us to the chance to talk to the last (so far) addition to Hong Kong cinema's key genre auteurs.
The Ferroni Brigade
Above: Director Cheang Soi. Photo © Robert Newald.
One of the most pleasant experiences of the movie year was the Viennale tribute to Cheang Soi (Zeng6 Bou2 Seoi6), and not just because it was long overdue—during the last decade, Cheang has established himself as the last (so far) addition to Hong Kong cinemas's key genre auteurs. What's more, the director proved himself an easygoing, merry presence, visibly delighted to attend his first retrospective, despite being occupied with two major releases lined up for 2012: The Monkey King (Dà nào tiān gōng), a new big-budget version of the Chinese classic, and the racing film Motorway (Ce1 sau2), his second production by Johnnie To's (Dou6 Kei4 Fung1) Milky Way Company after Accident (Ji3 ngoi6, 2009) brought Cheang Venice competition recognition. He gladly sat down for a chat with the Ferroni Brigade, discussing the upcoming features as well as his promising career, which began in the mid-90s after a typical Hong Kong fashion: First an assistant director—for Andrew Lau (Lau4 Wai5 Koeng4), Wilson Yip  (Jip6 Wai5 Seon3), Ringo Lam (Lam4 Leng5 Dung1) and To amongst others—he debuted in 1999, directing three features for the (short-lived) video market, before delivering with the astonishing Diamond Hill (Faat3 gwong1 sek6 tau4, 2000), a rough-hewn, but unique blend of genres that anticipates his major themes. His much more polished horror melodrama Home Sweet Home (Gwaai3 mat6, 2005) can be considered its flipside, taking place in a high rise built above the earlier film's squatter's slums (after they'd been cleared with violence).
With Diamond Hill securing his breakthrough to mainstream filmmaking, Cheang extended his perceptive analysis of the dark sides of Hong Kong society first with contributions to the era's horror boom, surprisingly steering the genre away from the dominant comedy crossover mode: In Horror Hotline...Big Head Monster (Hung2 bou3 jit6 sin3 zi1 daai6 tau4 gwaai3 jing1, 2001) the titular, uh, thing, is summoned by something like the collective unconscious—a Hong Kong trauma born out as a creature evoked by the paranoid fantasy of the callers in a popular radio show. Formally and stylistically, New Blood (Jit6 hyut3 cing1 nin4, 2002) is even more audacious: a revenge ghost story set in the nightmarish loneliness of modern Hong Kong. After the disappointment of The Death Curse (Gu2 zaak6 sam1 fong1 fong1, 2003), in which Cheang tried to appease producers by allowing for comedy (which he abhors, disliking also his absurd android adventure Hidden Heroes [Zeoi1 gik18 jyut6 15], a sci-fi-comedy co-directed with Joe Ma in 2004), he gravitated towards action—and intensified his bleak vision of Hong Kong. Love Battlefield (Oi3 · Zok3 zin3, 2004) is a purposefully escalating masterpiece that inverts a stereotype of Hong Kong thrillers: a gangster invasion from the mainland is treated sympathetically, as the desperate group kidnaps a couple wasting its freedom(s). No less overwhelming, Dog Bite Dog (Gau2 ngaau5 gau2, 2006) offers a pulverizing view of Hong Kong, mostly as seen through the eyes of a hardened hitman from Cambodia, on the run. Another story of a violent loner (and would-be assassin) followed with Shamo (Gwan1 gai1, 2007), set in a strange nowheresville, undoubtedly owing at least in part to its manga roots, but also representative of a world of new Pan-Asia production strategies. Returning decisively to Hong Kong, in the magnificent meta-thriller Accident Cheang treats the city more as a map—of the paranoid mind, mostly: Its hero, aptly called Brain, is once more a hired assassin, but of a special kind, making his murders look like accidents. Until something goes wrong, and he starts to suspect being that he is at the center of a deadly conspiracy, upon which his world(view) surprisingly, but consequentially, folds in on himself. Still, Cheang, also full of surprises, gleefully treats it as a minor work in the following interview. Then again, he seemed also surprised by our declaration that his friend Lam Suet (Lam4 Syut3) is the greatest actor alive.

NOTEBOOK: How did you get into cinema? You started out as an assistant director...
CHEANG SOI: When I came into the movie industry, I did not really want to be a director. That for me was really far away. When I think of a director, it's Ringo Lam, Johnnie To, Tsui Hark (Ceoi4 Hak1)–this is such a high level. That is too far away. Until I met one guy who told me: You can try. That was Wilson Yip. He taught me about creating: how to do things, how to trust yourself, how to do your job. And then I tried. I must have been 25, 26, something like this. I tried to get some money to start my movie. The chance was in DV movies: So I did Our Last Day (Dai6 100jat6)–for free. With that under my belt I returned to the film industry trying to get money from Joe Ma. I said to him: "I am going to tell you a story," which was Diamond Hill. But Joe Ma said: This story is not quite good. I can understand: In Hong Kong it's a totally commercial world, a totally commercial life. And Diamond Hill is so indie, it had an independent style: So he says he cannot give enough money to me. So I'm going out of Joe Ma's office and raise a million Hong Kong dollars to start Dianond Hill. When I finished, I called Joe Ma to attend the first screening, I just wanted him to see it. And when the film finished, the light goes an, and I look at Joe Ma, Joe Ma looks at me and says..."Good." That moment: [Gasp of relief]. And afterwards I ask Joe Ma whether I can come back. And he says: "I'll give you money to do another movie. What do you want?" I had tried DV movies and Diamond Hill for me was much better to shoot: How to create a good atmosphere. So I started to make commercial horror movies: Horror Hotline...Big Head Monster, and then everything followed step by step.
NOTEBOOK: Do you remember what kind of films you saw as a teenager? What were your favorites? Local Cantonese movies?
CHEANG: I watched Cantonese movies, yes. But I never liked the horror comedy. I really liked Alien, City on Fire (Lung4 fu2fung1 wan4, 1987), Prison on Fire (Gaam1 juk6 fung1 wan4, 1987) and School on Fire (Hok6 haau6fung1 wan4, 1987). Ringo Lam's movies touched me so deeply. But horror movies–it's Alien! That is my classic movie.
NOTEBOOK: Before you started out in cinema, you worked for some time as a graphic designer...
CHEANG: Just for two months! And then I got a chance to jump into the film industry. I enjoyed painting for so many years. But I just wanted to find a job, so I started to work in graphic design–that was two months in hell! Everyday I go to the office: I don't like sitting in the office! Then I got another job: In the newspaper, I saw an ad for a movie assistant. I wrote there and they accepted me. Because in Hong Kong many jump into the movie industry with connections: "You want to do it?," "Come on and do it!", from friend to friend. But I got it through a newspaper.
NOTEBOOK: What did you learn from the directors you worked for as an assistant director? You said Wilson Yip encouraged you a lot.
CHEANG: Yes. But it is Ringo [Lam] where I learned more about camerawork, about filmmaking. But you learn a lot of things from directors like Ringo, Wilson and Johnnie [To], and each one is different. I cannot separate in memory what is from whom.  Although for the technique and camera language I guess the one that impressed me most is Ringo. Because I'm so strange: When you see my camerawork come out, you see the theme and everything. What impressed with Ringo is that his camerawork is so subtle, shot for shot, it does not come out. On location, when you're watching you are going like [in a skeptical voice]: "What? This shot is from Ringo Lam? It's nothing!" But go to the editing room and watch all the shots put together: You see the whole scene–more powerful! It's not about one shot, but the whole scene, like writing sentences by arranging words. You can feel the power of the camera with Ringo.
NOTEBOOK: Which of the directors you work with ran the tightest set, made it work most smoothly?
CHEANG: For me, it's Ringo Lam. Johnnie is the total artist, also Wilson! If one day he cannot get the shot he wants, he goes crazy–the same with Johnnie. Johnnie may even take three days for one shot! Whereas with Ringo there's no way to spend three days! He would give me a shot list before we started, he was the only one to do that. When we get to the location, there may be a little change,: He follows his rein, he's totally clear and cool about what he wants. Following his rein to do everything, that's Ringo Lam: so smooth!
NOTEBOOK: How is it for you? Would you spend days on one shot?
CHEANG: Yes! In that sense I am an artist. I want to be a Ringo: Sometimes you'd like to do it, but you cannot do it. I tried, but on occasion I have another idea. I try to follow the shot list, but in the end I follow my idea.
NOTEBOOK: How much influence do you collaborators have on the aesthetics of your film. For example the greens in Love Battlefield: Does that deliberate use of green come from you or your director of photography?
CHEANG: From me. I wanted green to show how the worlds totally change during the course of the movie.
NOTEBOOK: How does the collaboration with your cameraman work? Do you give him a general outlook and he gives some input?
CHEANG: Yes, I have so many meetings. The scriptwriter is also very important, the cameraman and the art director. I talk to them endlessly in meetings, sometimes giving indications what I want. In the beginning I describe the movie I have in my brain, and then I also give them the space to create what they want. But I need to follow my rules to do it.
NOTEBOOK: That you started your "industrial" career with two horror films, Horror Hotline...Big Head Monster and New Blood: Was that just because horror was easy to get financed?
CHEANG: Yes! And because I have a base audience in the market. So there's a calculation how much we can make, and with a horror movie it's conventionally stable. Of course you cannot make it expensive! But then it's easy.
NOTEBOOK: Is it true that some of the people you see in Horror Hotline...are actually really working on a radio show that is a bit like the one in the film?
CHEANG: Oh, yes, there are two DJ's who really run a program called "Horror Line," it's a real show on that station. And these two told me the story on which the film is based, of the Big Head Monster. I found it very interesting, and one of the guys told me he has met the Big Head Monster. So strange! I get all the information and then I'm thinking: Why not shoot the radio show? Why not? If I shoot the radio show with this young DJ he'll know all the positions, the feeling. Every night these two listen to horror stories: actors cannot do that. So I shoot the radio show.
NOTEBOOK: Do you believe in ghosts? Did you ever meet one?
CHEANG: Maybe, I'm not sure if it was a ghost or not. It was not just me who met it, it was the whole film team. We were shooting in a really old building. There was a long corridor and we didn't have enough lights, so it was really badly lit for filming. For the scene we had two actors in the middle of the corridor, visible only as silhouettes. And then we noticed somebody was moving through the light. So we started shouting: "Get out, get out! We are starting to shoot!" But when we had finished the shot and looked, nobody was there. On the other side of the corridor there was nothing! But everybody had seen this guy. That was the beauty of it. So we were puzzled: "Where is he?" There was nothing. Do I believe in ghosts? The question is about filmmaking: On days before I shoot something scary, late at night I will turn off all lights in my house and sit there and look at the kitchen in the dark. Then I feel something inside, I'm very scared–and I try to keep this feeling on location to transmit it to the audience. It's crazy, but I do it. That's how it happened with Horror Hotline... and New Blood.
NOTEBOOK: What went wrong afterwards with The Death Curse? After this string of great movies this is one which obviously does not work.
CHEANG: Uh! [Chuckles] It's true. What happened with The Death Curse is that New Blood was a total loss at the box office. Somebody said it is too scary. It touched the limits of the audience, so nobody wanted to go and see this movie, because the word was out it is too scary. So Death Curse was kind of a peace offer. It's a scary movie, but also a comedy, which I hate. But I said: "Ok, I'll do it." I thought I could try to make it fresh, and another reason to do it was the two girls.
NOTEBOOK: The twins?
CHEANG: Yes, in Hong Kong they're really, really hot. So I have these two pop star girls, Charlene Choi (Coi3 Coek3 Jin4) and Gillian Chung  (Zung1 Jan1 Tung4). And Charlene, I really trust this girl, she's a natural actress. She has a basic instinct for comedy. I only had to tell her what I want. And while I agree that the film doesn't work, at the box office it did well.
NOTEBOOK: How do you work with actors? Do you work hard with them or just let them do their thing.
CHEANG: I work hard with them. Because I'm thinking otherwise they can't do their best. But it's not as if I advise them on location, like "Now you drink that water, then put the glass on the table." I would never do that, I just talk with the actors: What is in the character's brain, what is he thinking? Why is he doing something like this?
NOTEBOOK: And who is the actor you liked best to work with–excepting, obviously, the greatest of them all, Lam Suet?
CHEANG: Louis Koo (Gu2 Tin1 Lok6) in Accident. Of course, him and me work in a way that is not mature. We were really close and hardworking. Still, there's a reason why Accident does not seem a masterpiece to me.
NOTEBOOK: Why? You are the most self-critical director we have met in a long time!
CHEANG: There is a power in working with Koo, and there is the atmosphere. But to put all things together really smoothly: Sometimes I can do that, like Johnnie or Ang Lee (Lǐ Ān). But here the power does not rise to the top, you can only feel it inside. So despite working with Louis, it does not always reach that level–so Accident is not on the highest level, even as we are running together. The other actress I really loved was Qin Hailu, who plays the pregnant woman in Love Battlefield. She is really amazing.
NOTEBOOK: Also the actor who plays here husband, Wáng Zhìwén: He has this incredible face.
CHEANG: He is a very famous artist in China, a character actor. But the girl, I don't know, she gave me a really powerful feeling: When she's coming out and shooting guys, the way she looks [reenacts the moment]—"Pow!" It is amazing, really amazing.
NOTEBOOK: When will Motorway be finished?
CHEANG: It is. There is still post-production, but it should be ready next year, maybe January or February.
NOTEBOOK: You also shot The Monkey King in China. It seems many Hong Kong productions, especially the bigger ones, are moving to China. Is this the current trend in the Hong Kong film industry?
CHEANG: A few years ago so many Hong Kong directors were going to China. I had the feeling that the Hong Kong Film industry is stopping. But strangely, now so many come back to shoot Hong Kong style movies at home. Like Ip Man (Jip6 Man6, 2008), which is totally a Hong Kong style movie. Of course, in China, they also love Hong Kong movies, so maybe that helps with the rebirth of the Hong Kong industry. With The Monkey King it is different: It is not completely a Mainland China movie for me, with so many actors like Chow Yun-fat  (Zau1 Jeon6 Faat3), Donnie Yen (Jan1 Zi2 Daan1) or Aaron Kwok (Gwok3 Fu3 Sing4) starring–all Hong Kong stars. But the story comes from China.
NOTEBOOK: But there have been Hong Kong versions.
CHEANG: Yes, so many! From Stephen Chow (Zau1 Sing1 Ci4), who was very successful...
NOTEBOOK: ...to the lovely Shaw Bros. films!
CHEANG: The Shaws!? Why?
NOTEBOOK: C'mon, Cave of Silken Web (Pán sī dòng, 1967; d: Ho4 Mung6 Waa4) is so funny!
CHEANG: Oh yes, ok. Anyway, The Monkey King is a different situation for me: Of course I'm shooting in Beijing, but on this occasion I didn't feel whether it's a Chinese movie or a Hong Kong movie. There are not so many crew members who followed me to Beijing: Only my assistant director. The rest of the whole crew is from mainland China, because I want to try working with them and see what happens. Before I went to Beijing so many guys called: "Bring me along to Beijing!" But I said no, because I want to work with a Mainland China crew. Of course there are many problems coming up, and we have to solve them together. I feel happy in making a Hong Kong style film with a Chinese crew and maybe have another country for post-production.
NOTEBOOK: Mixing it all up.
CHEANG: Yeah! As you know, part of the Hong Kong style is to have no script and no schedule, so the CGI supervisor, who comes from America, is going almost crazy. In the beginning I hated this style, but in the end it's something. Every day I tell them I have a new idea.
NOTEBOOK: What is the main difference between a Hong Kong crew and a Mainland crew?
CHEANG: They will try to find the solution to a problem in completely different ways. For, it does not matter which way, as long as they can solve it. But the different approaches are why it's tricky to have a Hong Kong and a Mainland China crew work together.
NOTEBOOK: How was shooting in Mandarin different for you? Is this more about the nuances in the language or is there also a difference in acting styles?
CHEANG: For me it was a learning process. In the beginning it was quite difficult to get used to the way they perform in Mandarin, which is totally different–both for them and for me. So I have a dialogue coach on location, and learn a bit of Mandarin everyday when I talk in that language and look at the reaction on his face!
NOTEBOOK: You are such a cheerful guy, what draws you to all those dark places in your films? Mostly, they really deal with the sinister sides of Hong Kong.
CHEANG: Well, coming from Macao, which is such a little, quiet place, when I arrived on my first day in Hong Kong, everything seems so busy and noisy. So many cars, so many people. Everyday, everyone is rushing. One thing that totally ate my heart was when my family came to Hong Kong and we bought a house. Somebody was living there, he had rented the place, and when we came after we had bought the house and the contract, they just refused to leave. He kept living in there for one or two years, and even when I called the police, the cop there just said: "No, I can't do anything. It's not my job!" In the end my mother had to give that guy money so he'd finally go. To me that was completely crazy! First you use money to buy the house, and then you need more money to get the people out. That is not logical, it is not a normal world. That sticks in my brain. So when I create a story, I'm thinking about how to make this world that is not normal. Like in Home, Sweet Home. You see so much space, such a beautiful house–but there's a monster in there. And the monster feels that it's also its home: Something like this. So I guess you can say my dark side comes form Hong Kong society.
NOTEBOOK: Are you a politically active person yourself? Because your films are certainly very political. Not always on the surface, but when you look closely they are very political films about Hong Kong.
CHEANG: All of them?
NOTEBOOK: Well, not The Death Curse! At least we didn't understand that if anything was there. We might also exclude Shamo. But Home Sweet Home, Horror Hotline...New Blood or Love Battlefield for instance are strongly political.
CHEANG: Maybe it has to do with me not being from Hong Kong, but from Macao. So I see this place with other eyes, like in Dog Eat Dog. I had many complaints: "How could you show Hong Kong so dirty?" That's how I see it! And you need to trust your eyes to shoot what you perceive: And to my eyes Hong Kong looked like a pile of garbage. So my choice of locations was also completely different from those used by other directors.
NOTEBOOK: Do you actually feel at home Hong Kong?
CHEANG: Now it's better. Because in Hong Kong I have my family: my wife and daughter. So in a way it's my home. But if my wife and daughter moved to Japan, then Japan would be my home. What's important for me is not the house, it's the family.
NOTEBOOK: One final question: When will you use Lam Suet again? Is he in The Monkey King?
CHEANG: No, but maybe in the next movie! 


Soi CheangViennaleViennale 2011Wilson YipInterviews
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