Who are we now?
Cheung King-wai will only work on a documentary if he has a feel for the subject and the protagonist of his latest work, One Nation Two Cities, a Fujian woman named Xue, appeals to him as a 'traveller', he says.
The woman has been shuttling between her hometown on the mainland and Hong Kong since her parents and two older siblings moved to the territory in the 1970s.
Cheung says the 42-year-old - who declined to reveal her full name - is still fighting for right of abode after giving birth to two children in Hong Kong. It's an in-between life which embodies the many political and social changes to have unfolded on the mainland during the past three decades, he says.
Cheung was captivated by Xue's matter of fact manner when she talked about her life. 'She's an introvert and a cautious person. [Filming her] was very challenging as she doesn't articulate her feelings very well and, in terms of language, I can't depend on her. But the fact that she talks about her life - a dramatic one full of ups and downs - in such a flat tone and calm manner, creates an interesting contrast which I found intriguing,' he says.
Cheung says One Nation Two Cities- which was nominated for the Humanitarian Award for Documentaries at the Hong Kong International Film Festival last year - shares a similar humanist view with his two previous films, All's Right With the World (which examines several families subsisting on welfare payments) and KJ (which follows the life of young piano prodigy Wong Ka-jeng).
'When filming my documentaries I never have a particular sense of social responsibility in mind,' he says. 'There is no political agenda. But when compared to the portrayals in some other media, I think we can understand different topics with a more thorough, calm and objective mind. These people are just individuals with their own problems and emotions, like you and me.'
Through interviews with Xue (who was separated from her family by a policy requiring migrating families to leave at least one child behind), and with her childhood friends and the head of the village she was born and raised in, the 44-year-old director offers a broader perspective on the right-of-abode issue that has been simplified in recent years.
'If we narrow everything down, it's easy for us to see [things in] black and white,' he says. 'Just like the village head in the documentary: if we just see him as the executor of the policy and overlook how poor things were then in China, and how families had to leave behind a link so that [those left behind] could receive material support [money and goods, which would indirectly benefit the village], you'd say he was inhumane because he broke up families.
'But try to understand the rationale behind [the authorities'] actions... it's not like what they did can be justified, but there are lots of grey areas. Then we can embrace the whole thing as a lesson rather than keep on criticising them.'
It seems a good time to launch One Nation Two Cities now, as the debate continues about giving the right of abode to children born to two non-resident parents. Cheung recalls mainland migrants getting equally bad press when he started filming Xue in 2006, when new arrivals were criticised for abusing Hong Kong's welfare system. And that situation mirrors what we see today, with local people voicing concerns about what they see as mainlanders putting pressure on the medical services by giving birth in Hong Kong hospitals so their children could have right of abode.
'All these problems point to one single issue: how Hong Kong people deal with the handover to China,' he says. 'It's about our identity crisis, and it's not something that can be solved [in a short period of time]. It's a matter of emotions, instead of a political or legal problem.
'It's not like after you're issued with a Chinese passport you'll immediately [identify yourself as] a Chinese citizen. I always compare it with the concept of a biological father versus an adoptive father - you can't develop the same connection overnight.
'I'm so interested in this story probably because it's about identity. Xue is looking for her own identity, while me and the audience are also looking for our identity.'
This was why he ended the film with a scene of Xue looking for her ancestors' graves in her hometown, he says. 'We've lived with the handover for over 15 years now, but we're still at a stage of seeking and searching for our identity.' This is mirrored in the structure of the documentary, which unfolds in two parts (the first set in Hong Kong, the second in Fujian province) with a title card appearing in between. This symbolises the segregation that is still obvious between Hong Kong and the mainland, Cheung says.
'Under the 'one country, two systems' policy, do we mingle together very well? I don't think so. There's still a line between [Hong Kong and the mainland],' says Cheung.
'So [the structure of the documentary] was also my way of showing my uncertainty over whether we've mixed well [with mainlanders] since the handover. I think we're heading in a positive direction, but it really takes time.'
Perhaps it's like how he has honed his skills and attained a deeper understanding of different issues with his documentary-making. 'In recent years, it has become easier for me to verbalise and visualise clearly my sentiments,' he says. 'Through this verbalisation and visualisation process, I'm slowly studying each topic further and becoming clearer about why I like them.
'There's never been a better time to make documentaries about social issues in Hong Kong's history. There were documentaries during the colonial period, but not until near 1997 did we see growth in the number of independent filmmakers showing interest in society. Eventually, with an increased desire to pay attention to the search for our identity, the documentary scene will only become better.' email@example.com One Nation Two Cities will be on limited release at the Broadway Cinematheque and Palace IFC cinemas from Thursday