When Wilson Yip Wai-shun turned up at the Hong Kong Film Awards on Sunday, he was greeted like royalty. With his two Ip Man films - the latter for which he earned a best director nomination - he became one of the few Hong Kong filmmakers to have generated nine-digit returns at the mainland box office.
Investors now go to Yip with projects that give him creative carte blanche. That was the case with his radical reinterpretation of A Chinese Ghost Story, a literary tale that has twice before been adapted for the screen.
But this week 10 years ago, Yip was staring into the abyss. It was his first time as a best director nominee at the awards, for Juliet in Love, a subdued romantic drama about a lowly hoodlum (played by Francis Ng Chun-yu) and a frail restaurant hostess (Sandra Ng Kwan-yue).
But his travails did not stem from the fact that he lost to Ang Lee; it was how his hard-earned reputation was lying in tatters after a flopped foray into blockbuster territory with the Golden Harvest-produced action-thriller Skyline Cruisers. His first nomination at the film awards was looking dangerously like his last.
'When they offered me the gig I could have said 'no' - I could have just gone back and done another Juliet or Bullets over Summer,' Yip recalls, referring to the taut good-cop-bad-cop drama he made before Juliet in Love. 'But when someone came with the offer of making a big-budget production, I thought I'd definitely give it a crack, no matter what. The crux is whether you know how to deploy the wealth of resources at your disposal - and I didn't. I was just overwhelmed and I did it all wrong.'
He made Skyline Cruisers right after Juliet, and injected a lot of emotion into the film, he says. But that's not what audiences wanted. The film was criticised for being a mix of incoherent characterisation and preposterous action sequences.
'They were paying to see a heist film, and you need to give them some action - those scenes where characters wield state-of-the-art gadgets and so on. It's what I should have focused on - it's mainstream entertainment we're talking about, after all.'
Yip did recover, nevertheless. He was given another shot at an action-thriller with 2002, before he returned to making small-scale films such as the romantic comedy Dry Wood Fierce Fire and the largely forgettable teen-drama The Mummy, Aged 19. The Skyline misfire, however, was a lesson well learned, he says, and an experience that prepared him for when big-budget productions came calling again.
'You need to know what kind of film you are actually making,' he says. 'When The Dark Knight emerged, I finally knew exactly what it was all about. That's a commercial film, but at the same time the director [Christopher Nolan] managed to put his own nuances into it. I was so excited watching that film - it's a film that appeals to children and adults alike, as it comes complete with action scenes, car chases, cool images and a great story. If you've said 'yes' to a project destined for mass consumption, so be it - A Chinese Ghost Story, say, is not Juliet in Love.'
Five months after the release of The Dark Knight, Yip's Ip Man hit the screens. The film was well received, with critics praising the director and his lead actor, Donnie Yen Ji-dan, for portraying the titular wing chun kung-fu master as a flawed human being rather than the usual fighting-machine caricature seen in martial arts thrillers. Which, ironically, was what the Yip-Yen collaboration had been accused of delivering during the previous three years, in the cops-and-robbers fightfests SPL (2005) and Flash Point (2007), and the larger-than-life adaptation of the Dragon Tiger Gate comic in 2006.
'The challenge for Ip Man was how to mix my [character-driven] storytelling with the things this brilliant action-film actor could bring to the table,' he says. The key, Yip continues, was 'curbing' Yen's instincts for histrionics.
'[Yen] was worried that viewers would see his character as a coward, but I told him it's not exactly like that. The truth was that the real Ip did flee his home at the end - but it's not that he was feeble. He needed to remember how Ip was an ordinary person who just happened to know martial arts - he was not a superhero.'
Ip Man was largely seen as a watershed for Yen, who has since been acknowledged as an all-round actor rather than merely a high-kicking action man. The film was a landmark for Yip, too, as its success - and his ability to contain the infamously self-assured Yen - consolidated the director's standing as his own man. And it's on the strength of this film and its sequel - which reportedly took 200 million yuan (HK$238 million) at mainland theatres last year - that he took up the offer to remake A Chinese Ghost Story.
But it's not a remake, Yip says. While the film boasts the same set of characters - the beautiful spectre Nie Xiaoqian (played by Liu Yifei), her scholar suitor Ning Caishen (Yu Shaoqun), the swordsman Yan Qixia (Louis Koo Tin-lok) and the Tree Demon (Wai Ying-hung) - the original story, which focused on the romance between Nie and Ning, is given a complete overhaul. In Yip's version, the leading couple are Nie and Yan, who are seen falling for each other's charms well before Ning appears.
Yip's rise to the top was tortuous. Having joined the now-defunct Cinema City studio as an office assistant in the early 1980s, he began working as an assistant director in 1985. It took him 10 years to finally became a director on the ghost story omnibus 01:00am. What followed were years making B-movies such as Daze Reaper and Bio-Zombie before he finally earned acclaim for films such as Bullets Over Summer (in which two detectives with different temperaments hole up in an old woman's flat to investigate a crime) and Juliet in Love.
After his career was nearly torpedoed by Skyline Cruisers, Yip eventually regained his footing with several small-scale dramas before re-entering the big-budget frame with the Shanghai-set romantic drama Leaving Me, Loving You (starring Leon Lai Ming and Faye Wong) and martial arts comedy The White Dragon (featuring Francis Ng and Cecilia Cheung Pak-chi).
It was around that time that an associate contacted him about the chance to work with Donnie Yen, who was then seeking a creative rebirth in Hong Kong after spending several years away from the city, making films like Hero and working on action design for Harvey Weinstein films.
The result was SPL, which catapulted Yen back into the limelight and Yip to a genre light years away from his early dramas. While their follow-ups, Dragon Tiger Gate and Flash Point, drew a lukewarm response from critics, Ip Man arrived and salvaged both of their careers.
Now a bona fide commercial director, Yip says he's very much a changed man. After A Chinese Ghost Story, he will start work on the remake of Happy Ghost, the early 1980s comedy franchise about a bumbling vampire (played by Raymond Wong Pak-ming, who went on to produce the Ip Man films) and a rowdy group of young men and women.
'It's so ludicrous, isn't it?' Yip says, laughing, 'But what I want is to do a happy film set in contemporary times. And to sustain my career I've got to find something different. It would be easy for me to do A Chinese Ghost Story 2, but I want to find something more challenging.'
But is it challenging to him as a filmmaker? Yip laughs again. 'I want to do films that make everybody happy - the bosses are glad about their returns, the audiences don't feel bad watching them, and I don't feel ashamed afterwards,' he says. 'That's not that bad a thing, is it?'
A Chinese Ghost Story opens on Apr 28