Hong Kong filmmaker Soi Cheang back to form in SPL2
There are shades of the director's earlier, nihilistic movies in his new, big-budget crime thriller filled with martial arts fight scenes, but he says age and experience have mellowed him
Hong Kong director Soi Cheang Pou-soi has been thinking a lot about destiny. While his last effort, the 3D fantasy film The Monkey King, was universally panned by critics, it nonetheless took in more than one billion yuan (HK$1.26 billion) on the mainland alone.
"Maybe I'm fated to go through this," Cheang says. " The Monkey King project was quite a miraculous happening in my life because it didn't sound like my kind of movie at all. My past films weren't as popular commercially - probably because they're too weird for the audience's taste. I was once described as a DVD director."
Judging by the ambition of the 43-year-old's latest film, those days are long gone. SPL2: A Time for Consequences cost HK$100 million to make - a significant upgrade from the HK$30 million budget of director Wilson Yip Wai-shun's original, the 2005 action thriller SPL. "But the scale is similar," Cheang insists, albeit unconvincingly.
Although Donnie Yen Ji-dan and Sammo Hung Kam-bo didn't return, the new film features three martial arts actors in their prime: Chinese actor Wu Jing, who's fresh off the recent box office triumph of Wolf Warrior, which he directed and starred in; the Thai action star Tony Jaa; and Max Zhang Jin, who won best supporting actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards for his part in Wong Kar-wai's The Grandmaster.
Cheang was sceptical when Yip first approached him to direct this follow-up, being neither taken by the script at that point ("it was more of a traditional triad movie story") nor the prospect of living up to the oft-lauded original.
But they go back a long way. It was Yip's invitation to him to be assistant director on the film Teaching Sucks! (1997) that led the then-26-year-old Cheang to quit his TVB job. Ten years ago, Cheang was also on hand to shoot a couple of extra scenes for SPL when Yip had to complete them a matter of hours due to location constraints.
"At first, I told him that I wouldn't want to make an SPL movie unless we had a feasible story," Cheang recalls. "We spent two weeks of intensive discussions in the office to come up with a story. And somehow we managed to put together all the characters and the story framework that you see in the current movie."
A contemporary crime thriller with relentless fight scenes, SPL2 splits its story between Hong Kong and Thailand and charts the criss-crossing destinies of members of the Hong Kong police force, a prison in Thailand, and the international organ-trafficking trade. It tells an unrelated story to the first film - despite sharing its theme of fate and a litany of plot details.
"It's not my intention to make this a SPL sequel," says Cheang. "I'm making my own version of SPL. SPL should become something different when it goes into a different director's hands. I was really glad that Yip told me to forget about his movie."
The result is that there are moments in SPL2 that will remind viewers of the vicious intensity of his earlier films. It's worth noting that at the outset of his directing career, Cheang was primarily known as a cult filmmaker of over-the-top thrillers with ultra-violence and nihilistic world views, such as Dog Bite Dog (2006) and Shamo (2007). However, he seems to have kept his wild side in check since his two directorial efforts for Johnnie To Kei-fung's production house Milkyway Image - 2009's Accident and 2012's Motorway - and in the family-friendly The Monkey King.
Still, his old way crept back and the director says there were moments of hesitation when making SPL2: "For example, in an early scene of the film, a pregnant woman is abducted to be …" says Cheang before his sentence trails off.
The character is to be murdered by a human organ-trafficking syndicate operated by a villain played by Louis Koo Tin-lok.
"In the past, I'd surely agree to make the character a pregnant woman - it's not so much to show her plight than to highlight the fact that Koo's character is evil. But I did hesitate for a while. Eventually, I had to bring an objective voice in … [Wilson Yip] agreed that we should keep the pregnant woman because it was what the story calls for. And I was like, 'Right, what was I thinking?'"
Seen in this light, the contrast between the old and new Cheang couldn't be more pronounced. Since becoming a father in 2009, the director has tried not to be overly conscious of his filmmaking style.
"When I was younger, I wanted to be more extreme [in my approach] in order to stand out. There was a bit of calculation involved when I made movies such as Dog Bite Dog. I only stopped thinking about style after Accident; I didn't think much about it when I made Motorway, The Monkey King, or SPL2."
This new, more relaxed approach should bode well for his latest undertaking: The Monkey King 2, which is slated for a 2016 Lunar New Year release.
"In my first meetings with the investors [of The Monkey King films], once we decided that this is going to be a family movie series, I asked whether they wanted to handle this fantasy blockbuster like The Lord of the Rings or the Harry Potter," says Cheang.
"While Peter Jackson was the only notable name on The Lord of the Rings series, few people remember who the directors behind Harry Potter were.
"The investors replied Harry Potter - so I knew my place. I'm just someone at the wheel."
If the exemplary quality of SPL2 is anything to go by, however, Cheang may have a fighting chance to win over his critics with The Monkey King 2.
SPL2: A Time for Consequences opens on June 18