AMIABLE, WITTY AND down-to-earth, director Edmond Pang Ho-cheung can hardly be considered a prima donna. Nonetheless, he draws the line at certain things: like posing for a photo - even if the photographer's request entails him merely lifting his hand to his face to cut a more contemplative figure.
'I'm just petrified of having my portrait taken like this,' says the 32-year-old, adjusting his sunglasses and settling back at his desk. 'When things like this happen at social functions I usually just sneak away.' The thought of red carpets still leaves him cold, he says. 'I'll just march down there with my head down, as quickly as I can.'
If that's the case then the next few months will be sheer hell. His new film, Isabella, is in competition at this year's Berlin Film Festival. The dreaded red-carpet moment will happen today, when the film premieres at a morning press screening. Having got the nod for Berlin, it's inevitable that other festivals around the world will want to screen the movie. Isabella is expected to be one of the key attractions at Hong Kong's International Film Festival, which begins on April 4.
Pang's dislike of the limelight is just one of the traits that have made him the enfant terrible du jour of local filmmaking. Isabella, produced by showbiz tycoon Lam Kin-ngok's Media Asia, is his first stab at working with a major local studio.
Although his debut, You Shoot, I Shoot, was backed by Golden Harvest, his last three films were financed by the smaller Mei Ah Entertainment. With a budget of $10 million, Isabella was his most expensive project. But it's no star-studded extravaganza. It unfurls slowly in a nondescript Macau neighbourhood, and revolves mostly around two characters. The leads, Isabella Leong Lok-sze and Chapman To Man-chak (who produced the film with Pang through their joint venture, Not Brothers Productions) are hardly A-list.
With his success at the Hong Kong Film Awards (best new director award for Men Suddenly in Black, 2003) and the Golden Horse Awards (best director nomination for Men Suddenly in Black, also in 2003), Pang says he's regularly courted by large studios. He turns down most offers. 'There was one who asked me to direct a large-scale action movie,' he says. 'I said, 'No. Don't get me wrong, I'm flattered - and it's not that the project's not good. It just doesn't suit me.' I believe there are directors in the market who could do a better job than I could.'
What he can do, Pang says, is make 'small-scale films with quality'. It's hard to argue with him, given Isabella's meticulous production (courtesy of veteran production designer Man Nim-chung) and its refreshingly melodrama-free script. The subtlety seems to have affected To and Leong as well. Given Emperor Entertainment's marketing of Leong as a teen pop idol, her turn as a wayward teenage waif is surprisingly effective. To's performance as a repressed policeman tackling inner demons is a leap forward for an actor who's notorious for living off the same on-screen persona since his star turn in Infernal Affairs.
In Isabella, set in Macau during the last days of Portuguese colonial rule, To plays Shing, a vile, immoral policeman facing trumped-up charges of corruption and smuggling. Refusing to confront his fast unravelling world and bedding a series of women picked up in clubs, Shing runs into Yan (Leong), a chain-smoking teenager who claims to be his daughter.
What follows is a tale of redemption for two lost souls, each helping the other to reach out beyond their dead-end worlds.
Pang's love for the former Portuguese colony drove him to set the story there. 'I still have vivid memories of Macau in the city's run-up to the handover [in December 1999],' he says. 'Everything was changing really fast, and the European flavour was faltering fast, too. That's when I decided that I should do something to preserve all that.'
Given his penchant for the dark side, it's clear that it's not just the colonial aura that drew him to the city. On the surface, Isabella looks startlingly different from Pang's previous output: there's none of the black humour that dominates Men Suddenly in Black (a story about four meek men's farcical attempts to mess around when their wives are away) and AV (about four meek students' farcical attempts to have sex with a porn starlet by pretending to make a porn film). What remains is Pang's interest in tackling stories about anti-heroes and forsaken men pondering a masculinity that offers nothing but a sense of failure.
'I don't think there are heroes in real life,' Pang says. 'Everyone's a small potato battling their own fears in the larger scheme of things. It's especially true after 1997, when the economy went down. You could see that men could no longer speak as loudly as before - they realised that their bravado didn't ring true any more, and they could no longer proclaim themselves as the economic pillar in the family. It's a good thing. It allows men to look back at their own relationships with people around them.'
The way Pang toys with the idea of the weak male harks back to his first film, You Shoot, I Shoot. Its main protagonist is an aspiring film aficionado (played by Cheung Tat-ming) whose ambition is to become the Martin Scorsese of Hong Kong. Worn down by his inability to break into the industry and by Hong Kong's descent into recession, he ends up making videos for a contract killer (Eric Kot Man-fai) whose sceptical paymasters want proof that he murders his victims. Both are men who originally had high hopes about accomplishing heroic deeds, and end up as washed-out parodies of their own ambitions. 'There were a lot of people who had set great objectives in life, only to find themselves forced to do things against their own wishes,' the director says.
Pang says his films reflect the frustration he felt in his struggle to become a director in command of his own creative destiny. His induction into the film industry was far from a smooth ride. He worked as a scriptwriter at ATV, a newspaper columnist and a production assistant at Cable TV - sometimes all at the same time. A collaboration with Jan Lamb Hoi-fung, who made his script Out of the Blue into a movie, didn't open many doors. Neither did his book Fulltime Killer, which was adapted into a film by Johnnie To Kei-fung and Wai Ka-fai.
It was only after making a self-funded (to the tune of $120,000), award-winning short documentary in 1999 - about a schoolboy trying to finish his summer homework - that Pang finally made a name that investors trusted. Although not completely.
'I had a romance-driven story in mind for my first movie,' he says. 'But the film company insisted that it would be better for me to make a film about a killer. I thought, 'Why should I make a killer caper in order to make a name for myself?' That's why You Shoot, I Shoot turned out like it is.'
The film's quirky take on belittled killers and filmmakers amused audiences and critics, cementing Pang's reputation as a source of bizarre yet innovative storylines. What followed were Men Suddenly in Black, Beyond Our Ken and AV, nearly all of them sturdy yet low-profile films that manage to mix quirkiness with solid storytelling.
Pang's presence at Berlin serves as a reminder for young directors that hope exists - even if it needs the muscle of a more sizeable backer. 'I could offer you the stock line that being there is already like winning,' says Pang. 'That wouldn't be the whole truth. We wanted to make a film of quality from day one.
'We're pleased we made it to the Berlin film festival, but we aren't surprised.'
Isabella is on general release from April 27