Watching Hong Kong’s cinema veteran Chin Siu-ho reuniting with Anthony Chan Yau to battle grotesque geung si (hopping vampires) and eerie ghosts in Juno Mak Chun-lung’s bleak yet surprising directorial debut Rigor Mortis premiering in Venice Film Festival this week, I couldn’t help recalling an interview I did with Mak almost a decade ago.
It was 2004, and the Canto-pop singer had just turned 20. Sporting a cap and baggy outfit, Mak told me his dream was to become a film director: "I always talk about films with my friends, and think about their plots and styles. Thought-provoking films like Seven are my type. It's unusual for a film to have a tragic hero."
Back then, how was it possible to take the kid's words seriously? He's the son of CCT Telecom chairman Clement Mak, born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He certainly wasn't the heartthrob type (a photographer even told me once that he couldn't possibly find a good angle to shoot Mak, which was mean), and yet he launched his Canto-pop career when he was 18.
Video: Juno Mak on the controversy over his family background
Hong Kong people can be superficial and mean – they like to hate those born rich yet are disgusted by the poor. Soon rumours began to spread: his fans were hired professional groupies, he was a womanising rich kid on the covers of gossip magazines. And when he won the year-end music awards in 2002, he was booed by audience every time he stepped on the stage.
The worst came in 2003 when he and his father were arrested alongside entertainment mogul Albert Yeung Sau-shing and senior executives from TVB and Universal Music HK, the record label Mak belonged at the time, during an ICAC anti-graft investigation into an alleged bribes-for-awards scam.
And finally when the ICAC drama died down – the case was eventually withdrawn - and Mak re-emerged again, co-producing his solo album under his elder brother's company, I thought, well, he was only a kid, shouldn't we be a bit more tolerant?
Over the years he continued to produce music, and a number of albums and singles such as Yuek Shui Sam Chin (弱水三千) from the 2009 album The Dream (天生地夢) began to change people's perception of him. He also runs his own fashion label. And in 2011 he teamed up with director Wong Ching-po for the gruesome yet stylish alternative thriller Revenge: A Love Story, for which leading man Mak co-wrote the script. It didn't flare in the box office but it won Wong best director at Moscow International Film Festival.
Video: Juno Mak on his first directing experience
Now at 29, Mak lives his dream – this week he is attending Venice Film Festival for the first time as Rigor Mortis enjoys its world premiere there and is competing in the festival’s Venice Days section. The film, as described by Mak, is essentially a drama about life.
“[I] deconstruct the original elements and reconstruct it again...It's obviously quite a heavy film,” Mak says. The HK$15 million film is a nod to the 1980s Hong Kong geung si movie genre rather than a remake, he stresses. The comedic elements that were popular back then have been stripped away, and what is left is a number of heart-wrenching stories weaved together as the drama unfolds in a housing estate building.
The film also reunites some of the original cast members from the Mr Vampire franchise, including Chin and Chan, Richard Ng and even Lau Nam-kwong, who hasn't been seen on the big screen for some time. Mak admits that his lack of directorial experience threw up a lot of questions during the 60 days of shooting. But over the time, he says he has managed to build the trust of cast members who are twice his age.
“Flaws are humane, and that's what makes it beautiful to me. The wrinkles on their faces meant age and experience. It's humane, and that's very cool,” Mak says.
Rigor Mortis has already been picked up by Well Go USA for North American distribution rights. Regardless of whether he will be coming home with any award, he has already proved himself – he has reinvented himself from a singer to a film director, a feat few others have achieved in recent years. Late Canto-pop super star and award-winning actor Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing also wanted to become a film director, but his dream never came true before he took his life 10 years ago.
Mak says on the set he must know exactly what he wants, and not lose his temper because that is not going to solve any problems. “Never lose your cool.”
It's time for us to stop judging a book by its cover.