Money talks

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 April, 2012, 12:00am


Next week, Peter Chan Ho-sun will begin production of a film about a young woman who subjects herself to a series of cosmetic surgeries to improve her fortune in love and at work.

Scripted and directed by long-time collaborator Aubrey Lam Oi-wah, Natural Beauty reads like the kind of urban romantic comedies that Chan's now-defunct filmmaking collective, United Filmmakers Organisation (UFO), delivered to commercial and critical acclaim in the 1990s. This success cemented Chan's standing as a major player in Hong Kong cinema, as well as a masterful observer of the city's social and cultural nuances.

What makes Natural Beauty a very different beast for the 49-year-old producer-director, however, is its setting. Unfolding in an upwardly mobile middle-class setting in Beijing, the film is his first attempt at making a real mainland movie, after a decade of crafting mainland-Hong Kong co-productions which rarely touched on the country's social landscape, he says.

Chan says his decision to finally embrace those demands wholesale comes more out of circumstances than design. Admitting he has yet to adapt to life in the north - when not shooting a film, he says, he can only stand living 'a few days a month' on the mainland - his hand was forced when Wu Xia failed with critics and film-goers last year.

Set in a small Chinese village in 1917, Wu Xia (2011) paid homage to Hong Kong's martial-arts cinema with a mash-up of The One-Armed Swordsman, CSI and Hitchcockian noir. 'If Wu Xia had made lots of money, I might have done a Wu Xia 2 or something along the lines of that as my next project,' Chan says.

'But it didn't perform well at the box office and I lost some money on it. So I thought, why tire myself out by betting against things I can't control? I might as well proceed with something which I sooner or later would have to tackle anyway, that is, make contemporary dramas set on the mainland. So I came up with the characters and a story, and then had mainland writers touch up the dialogue to make it feel right.'

Natural Beauty will be followed by an as-yet-untitled project which Chan will direct himself. It will chronicle the changing lives of three men from Beijing as they navigate the mainland's drastically evolving social landscape during the past three decades, transforming themselves from nondescript university lecturers to billionaire owners of the country's leading private education institute.

The story, based on a screenplay from the state-run China Film Group studio, is loosely based on Yu Minhong, the former Peking University instructor who made his fortune providing TOEFL training to students seeking to study abroad. Chan says it's an exercise in 'evoking collective memories' among mainland audiences.

That was, after all, how he succeeded in Hong Kong with Comrades, Almost a Love Story (a 1996 film that follows the lives of two mainland immigrants in Hong Kong and then America from the 1970s to the '90s), and Golden Chicken (a 2002 comedy which illustrates changes in Hong Kong's fortunes in the late 20th century through the life of a prostitute, played by Chan's partner Sandra Ng Kwan-yue).

Chan was drawn to the story because it has one of his favourite themes: relationships put to the test in a society facing sweeping changes over a long period. But he also feels personally about the characters' willingness to look beyond China in their search for values and expertise they can bring home to make lives better.

'They weren't merely teaching English - they were also teaching students how people live in the US, and how the social values there could come into play in a developing China,' he says.

'It's all about not coming in with an inferiority complex, and that you need to know how to borrow things elsewhere so as to cultivate the future. It's like when one of the characters says he knows the 'best knowledge' is in the US, but he will definitely return to China because the market's there.'

Such pragmatism mirrors Chan's approach towards filmmaking, adjusting to the seismic shifts the industry has seen in the past three decades.

His career began in 1983 when he served as a co-ordinator and translator on the set of John Woo Yu-sum's Heroes Shed No Tears. Spending the 1980s as a line producer at Golden Harvest studios, Chan's breakthrough came when he made an acclaimed directorial debut with Alan & Eric: Between Hello and Goodbye in 1991.

That film led to the founding of UFO, where he consolidated his credentials with films such as He's a Woman, She's a Man (1994) and Comrades, Almost a Love Story.

After a stint in Hollywood making the Steven Spielberg-backed The Love Letter (1999, which stars Kate Capshaw), Chan returned to Hong Kong. The city was in the doldrums because of the Asian financial crisis of 1998, but he became a champion of 'pan-Asian' co-productions through his company, Applause Pictures, which yielded hits such as Bangkok-set The Eye and the Three omnibus horror films.

Two years after the mainland-Hong Kong Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement came into force in 2003, Chan released Perhaps Love, a fantastical musical built around a love triangle whose success prompted him to up the ante with sprawling epics such as The Warlords, Bodyguards and Assassins, and Wu Xia.

'It was said [mainland] audiences had become used to these bombastic period dramas - with pirated discs on sale everywhere, people were only willing to pay for big-budget productions. And censors were less sensitive when they looked at those films, so there was no reason why we shouldn't do these films,' he says.

'But you can't make these films forever - just like I couldn't go on making pan-Asian horror films. So it's all about thinking how we are to crack the mainland market by other means. It's what we've been doing all along, adapting to survive.'

Chan's decision to begin anew coincides with his revelations about his career in My Way, a book co-released by the Hong Kong International Film Festival and Joint Publishing House. His reflections on Wu Xia are interesting: in the book, he describes the film as 'my biggest low commercially and critically ... but from an artistic perspective, however, my most rewarding film in recent years'.

Chan says he 'miscalculated' how much he could push the envelope by subverting audience expectations of a martial-arts film after the critical and box office success (200 billion yuan in ticket sales on the mainland) of The Warlords, which featured morally ambiguous lead characters with no clear-cut heroes or villains. 'People told me later that [Wu Xia] didn't click with their lives and their history. However subversive it was, The Warlords had a lot to say about Chinese cultural traits. It could be read as a message about how we abide with or confront authority, and how betrayal happens in the face of that. My expectations rose too high, and I veered away from my usual cautious, rational attitude towards filmmaking.'

So Chan has returned to a sounder footing with his more accessible contemporary comedies. Not that he'll acknowledge that as yielding to commercial pressure: 'People ask me what films I like to make most - and I always tell them it's what the market demands.

'It's about how you personalise what the market wants as you develop your projects, so that they become your films. Even if all my films are commercial, good or bad ones, I still see all of them as auteur films, because they speak about what I was thinking.'