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Chinese language cinema

Eric Tsang, Shawn Yue on how they came to star in Mad World, indie gem that’s one of Hong Kong’s hottest new films

Veteran actor almost backed out of Wong Chun’s debut feature because of its heavy subject matter, but instead roped in Yue to star, and film has since gone on to garner several prizes – with Hong Kong Film Awards still to come

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 March, 2017, 5:00pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 March, 2017, 5:31pm

When the veteran actor-producer Eric Tsang Chi-wai picked up an early script for Mad World – the feature film debut of two twentysomethings, director Wong Chun and screenwriter Florence Chan Chor-hang – he was more tormented than excited by the prospect of bringing the project to life.

As Tsang now recalls, he was not ready to participate in such a bleak story – even though he had promised to help Wong make his first feature after the young man impressed with his short film Good Take, a segment in the Tsang-produced Streets of Macao anthology (2013) that was subsequently released in cinemas last year as Good Take! and Good Take Too .

Wong, 28, says: “I remember that Tsang told me he was going to turn me down; he didn’t want to take part in such a tough and heavy project.”

So it was a blessing in disguise that Mad World was to be made on a budget of just HK$2 million – a shoestring figure in today’s business – as a beneficiary of the Hong Kong Film Development Council’s First Feature Film Initiative. “Once Wong told me there’s no money in it, I couldn’t say no to him – or it would look like I turned him down because of that,” says Tsang with a chuckle.

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On the plus side, Tsang could foresee that the film – which revolves around the reintegration into society of a patient with bipolar disorder (played by Shawn Yue Man-lok) and his emotional reconciliation with his long-absent truck driver father (Tsang) – would be a showcase for any obliging actors. Its socially conscious subject matter – covering mental illness, family breakdown and the plight of those living in tiny subdivided flats in Hong Kong – would capture the attention of critics and win awards.

“There just haven’t been many Hong Kong films like this one for a very long time, tackling social problems head-on. I think the script went deep into the issues,” says Tsang, 63, who also convinced Yue to co-star alongside him without pay. “It didn’t take much to persuade Yue. All I had to ask him was, ‘Have you ever received a [best actor] nod?’ There’s no guarantee of an award, but a nomination should be quite safe.”

Since its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, Mad World has won best new director for Wong and best supporting actress for Elaine Jin Yan-ling – who plays the protagonist’s mother – at the Golden Horse Awards in Taipei; earned the best director and screenwriter honours for Wong and Chan in the Hong Kong Film Critics Society’s year-end poll; scooped the Grand Prix at the Osaka Asian Film Festival; and received eight nominations for next week’s Hong Kong Film Awards.

Chan – who is Wong’s girlfriend and the writer of every professional project directed by him, including his first short film, 6th March (2011) – began writing the story in 2013, after coming across a news story about a recovering mental patient.

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“I wanted to write a movie script to tell these stories we wouldn’t necessarily come across in our own daily life,” says Chan. “The script began with the protagonist and a basic outline, and then our research really affected how we built the character [played by Yue], and how we shaped his encounters. Those are based on experiences or problems we found by talking to people.”

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Chan and Wong conducted a wide range of interviews with recovering mental patients, doctors, social workers and even truck drivers to learn about their lives, before using those findings to refine the story.

The burden of lending soul to this extraordinarily grim drama fell on Yue, who arguably gave the best performance of his career playing a former stockbroker struggling to mend relationships ruined as a result of his mental health condition. To maintain focus during the shoot, Yue says he largely avoided talking to anyone on the set, found himself in an hour-long daze every time he was home after a day’s shoot, and didn’t get much sleep.

“I’m scared of doing interviews for this film, because every time I talk about the shoot, those experiences would come back to me all over again,” says Yue, 35. “My shoot lasted only 14 days but it felt much longer … The subject matter is quite heavy, and every day I had to push myself to emotional extremes.”

Both Tsang and Wong had Jacob Cheung Chi-leung’s Cageman – the award-winning 1992 film set in a Hong Kong building divided into cage homes for an impoverished community – in mind when they made Mad World. Chan cites a much more diverse list of Hong Kong classics as her influences.

“I really like the films from the Hong Kong New Wave,” the screenwriter says of the film movement that climaxed in the 1980s. “Many filmmakers then, including Ann Hui On-wah, Allen Fong Yuk-ping, Yim Ho, Patrick Tam Ka-ming and Jacob Cheung, brought social realities into their films.

“They used the film medium to package social issues and bring them to the attention of more people. I think it’s a beautiful thing to do to give voice to people through cinema.”

Now that they have overcome the hardest part and successfully shot their debut feature – in just 16 days, it should be added – Wong and Chan face a new challenge: persuading the public to go and see Mad World, which they have frankly described as a film that would sadden its audiences.

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“This isn’t a drama that we created to entertain people,” Wong says. “The fact is that this is based on a lot of true stories from a lot of people; the majority of the plots and lines of dialogue were based on real-life findings from our interviews. The actors knew that they’re re-enacting real stories from actual people, and we all had to be careful in handling them.”

Yue, who is nominated for best actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards for the first time, says the film feels “so real that it’s scary”.

“We all know that this is not a commercial film,” says the actor. “But the film is popular with audiences because at least one of the situations it depicts – whether it is about emotions, family or love – is bound to touch you.”

“It’s always better to confront a problem than to hide it,” Yue adds. “Mad World puts the issues on the table and it’s a positive thing to do. It’s like how you have to go to the doctor when you’re sick. [Watching this movie] is beneficial to the audiences. [It makes them think:] Are we treating our family or our lover in a wrong way? My only hope is that more cinemas will show this film, because films can heal people.”

Mad World opens on March 30

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