The outsider's insider
When Soi Cheang Pou-soi arrived at the Vienna International Film Festival last October to attend a retrospective on his works, he was taken aback by the enthusiastic reception. Sold-out screenings, rave reviews, intense analysis of the socio-cultural subtexts of his movies - everything a serious filmmaker could dream of was accorded him during his week-long visit in Austria, if not more.
'I could feel a certain respect towards what I do,' says the 39-year-old, reflecting on his Viennese voyage in the Kwun Tong office of Milkyway Image, the company that produced his previous film, Accident, and his latest, Motorway. 'They do feel that there's something more to the films - that they are of some value. It's like they could sense they could get something more by watching these films ... and if the people there merely want some entertainment, they would have gone for Hollywood blockbusters rather than watching something by a Hong Kong director.
'It's a deference which I might not be able to get here in Hong Kong.'
Indeed, Cheang's conundrum lies in how his international standing has somehow been lost in translation as he brings his goods home. While he's carved out a niche on the film festival circuit, he has yet to be taken seriously as an A-list auteur in Hong Kong. Accident was a Golden Lion nominee at Venice in 2009, but took a mere HK$5.6 million at the local box office; after receiving a Best New Director nomination for New Blood in 2002, Cheang hasn't featured again in the annual Hong Kong Film Awards. (It's telling, however, that his films have been regular achievers at the local film critics' awards.) This lack of local recognition is exemplified best by how Motorway is marketed. Having taken its bow at the Shanghai International Film Festival last Saturday and scheduled for general release here on Thursday, the film - which tells of a young police-car driver's rite of passage alongside his jaded, older partner - is promoted mostly on the strength of its two stars, Shawn Yue Man-lok and Anthony Wong Chau-sang. The same goes for Cheang's next project, The Monkey King: the public is probably more aware of the stellar cast of this 3-D Imax adaptation of Journey to the West - among then Donnie Yen Ji-dan, Chow Yun-fat and Aaron Kwok Fu-shing - than the director behind the film.
Such reliance on the star system is certainly doing Cheang an injustice, even if he says he doesn't see himself as 'some big shot on the scene, really'. Devoid of the glumness of his films, and the swagger one expects of the jet-setting cinematic enfant terrible he is, the softly-spoken, ever-polite Cheang has reworked many a genre since his full-length feature-film debut in 2000 with Diamond Hill. The talented outsider has shown himself to be one of the most interesting and fiery filmmakers of his generation.
Working himself up the ranks from helming no-budget straight-to-video films in the 1990s to directing internationally-celebrated gems and blockbuster co-productions,
Cheang bore witness to the local industry's decline as the century turned. But it was under such circumstances that he quietly and slowly rose to prominence, too: after directing three largely forgettable digital-video features in 1999, Cheang made Diamond Hill, a psycho-drama about a young woman whose alienating, middle-class existence with her parents conceals a horrible secret involving her long-vanished brother. Cheang's deftness in the horror genre was cultivated further in his subsequent (and increasingly bigger-budget) films like Horror Hotline... Big Head Monster (2001), New Blood (2002) and Home Sweet Home (2005).
'I make commercial films,' said Cheang. 'And I won't forget where I came out of. Genre films are what our generation have grown up with, and we are trained as directors by making them; but I believe there are many possibilities there, and it just depends on how we make them.'
Just as many horror films have down the years, Cheang's are all about the return of the repressed, be it unwanted desires or marginalised others. Home Sweet Home is a good example: made at a time when the government's urban regeneration projects were called into question, Cheang's film unleashes a gaunt, disfigured woman into the corridors of a brand-new housing complex, the spectre of the slum cleared to make way for the lush, all-mod-cons building.
Cheang said his traumatic relocation from Macau to Hong Kong has led him to see himself as a social outcast. 'I was quite pessimistic in the past - I believed we couldn't change anything in society, so that's why I always drew protagonists from the underclass - hitmen, criminals, monstrous characters who were helpless. But now I believe you should try your best even when the world's unfair. Maybe it's because of my daughter ... now I finally feel at home here. I feel there's hope.'
But he's now leaping into the unknown again to further his career, as he finds himself becoming once again an outsider in Beijing, while attempting to finish The Monkey King.
'I think the criticism stems from this identity clash [between the mainland and Hong Kong], but I believe there will soon be a day when you can't tell whether a film is made by someone here or from over there,' he said, adding how Pang Ho-cheung has navigated this schism well with his Beijing-set romantic comedy Love in the Buff.
Before that day comes, however, Cheang and Pang might become the last generation of filmmakers who get flak for their mainland ventures.
'If we're the gap generation, so be it,' Cheang said, laughing. 'But I think it's not just us who are the in-betweeners - it's Hong Kong that's stuck in between two shores. We can't seem to integrate ourselves with the mainland on anything - and, guess what, it's now the mainlander's turn in barracking us Hong Kong directors for going up there to make a living.'
His scepticism also applies to his views on the heightened craving among local audiences for films showcasing a more distinct Hong Kong identity in recent years. 'That doesn't feel right,' said Cheang.
'Would this support last? I'm just worried that, in two or three years' time, all this will dissipate. Maybe it's just because we've been suppressed for some time, that people are clinging to things and say, 'We have to fight against this cultural invasion'. But this sentiment might not stem from a genuine respect for Hong Kong cinema - it might be other things, like politics, daily-life pressures or animosity against mainland tourists.'
As Motorway hits the local multiplexes, the case continues.
Soi Cheang Pou-soi
Director of Motorway, which opens on Thursday, and The Monkey King, an Imax 3D adaptation of Journey of the West to be released next year
Golden Lion nominee at the Venice Film Festival in 2009 with Accident. Directorial debut in 1999 with Our Last Day. First international award in 2002 with Horror Hotline ... Big Head Monster, at the Milan International Film Festival; prizes followed with New Blood (Youth Jury Award, Neuchatel International Fantasy Film Festival, 2003) and Dog Bite Dog (Action Asia Award, Deauville Asian Film Festival)
Born in Macau but raised in Hong Kong. Married with a two-year-old daughter