Pang Ho-cheung and Fruit Chan put the local movie world to rights
Directors Fruit Chan and Pang Ho-cheung go head to head over what it means to be the voice of Hong Kong. Edmund Lee listens in
WITH THEIR DARK humour, tenacious dedication to portraying Hong Kong life in an authentic way, and an infectious, overwhelming passion for the essence of the city's colloquial culture, Fruit Chan and Pang Ho-cheung may just be among this century's coolest filmmakers.
After ushering in an era of indie filmmaking with his now-iconic 1997 feature Made in Hong Kong, Chan is back with The Midnight After, a sci-fi mystery that follows a group of Hongkongers who board a minibus headed for Tai Po and are drawn into a time vortex. The movie was adapted from a serialised novel published on the internet.
Meanwhile, Pang, who firmly established himself as one of Hong Kong's most popular directors with the 2012 comedies Love in the Buff and Vulgaria - is about to unleash his first family drama with an ensemble cast, Aberdeen, which takes an unflinching look at the secrets plaguing a contemporary Hong Kong family.
The Midnight After and Aberdeen are the opening features at this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival. We got these two revered filmmakers together to talk about their work and that sex-with-a-mule scene.
Pang Ho-cheung: I've recently realised that in every media interview I'm identified for my movies' Hong Kong sentiments. Now I'm not speaking on your behalf, director Chan, but I'm a born-and-bred Hongkonger who feels for the city as a matter of course - whether I want to or not. My mother tongue is Cantonese. That's not to say that I'm against the idea of making films about other cultures in other languages - these opportunities simply haven't arrived yet. It's not my aim to make only Hong Kong-centric movies.
Fruit Chan: I'm even worse off than you. I've been pigeonholed ever since Made in Hong Kong. After the  trilogy, I made a range of movies in Hong Kong. In my case, this label has sometimes made it very …
Pang: [ interjects] But you did go abroad with [Hong Kong-South Korean co-production] Public Toilet.
Chan: That film did travel around.
Pang: So you're not only a Hong Kong director but, for whatever reason, the local audience always thinks of you as one.
Chan: Then again, it's impossible to deny that there's something in our local films.
Well, you're still a relatively commercial and mainstream director by comparison. My films are really more about everyday life. They're different from even the ordinary Hong Kong films that the audience is used to because the local movies here are rarely about everyday life or the spirit of humanity. Your film Men Suddenly in Black is also about humanity, isn't it?
Pang: Indeed, indeed.
Chan: So there's a difference between our work and mainstream movies here. By mainstream movies I mean genre films or cops-and-robbers films.
Pang: But this is exactly what I don't understand. Why didn't mainstream Hong Kong films in the past concern themselves with this [authentic portrayal of life in the city]?
Chan: This has something to do with tradition and even more to do with the fact that, once Hong Kong-mainland collaborations became a norm, it became increasingly obvious that we were being looked down on. The mainlanders think that we have no concern for [humanity] and are content to repeat ourselves within the boundary of genre cinema. They may not be totally right, but what they do come up with is precisely your question.
Pang: But there doesn't have to be any conflict between making genre films and caring about humanity.
Chan: There doesn't need to be any conflict, that's true. I know a Hong Kong director who believes that all my films are art films. I was like 'What?' He thinks it's an art film as long as you use a single shot for an entire scene or a long take … and I thought, seriously? You still have that sort of backward understanding of cinema?
Pang: This is such a strange discussion.
Chan: That's why I think it's no longer purely the problem of the Hong Kong audience. It's both sad and laughable that people in the industry are still thinking in that way.
Pang: And sometimes they consider it an art film when the characters don't speak their lines frequently enough.
Chan: Right, right. And when you keep the scene going for just a little longer, they think you're messing around. It's really a disaster when it comes to this kind of thinking … Dude, what kind of an era are we living in? They can't go on thinking that way. It's just laughable. This is not just about the audience though. Of course they'd love to put us on a pedestal as 'Hong Kong directors' forever, but it'd be disaster for us because we would end up starving. [ Laughs]
Pang: What's more, there are people who claim that I'm betraying myself by making commercial films. I must ask 'Why on Earth am I seen as being untrue to myself just because the audience likes my films?' I remember that, when I was young, I would only buy tickets to see the movies that I liked. So why is it that after I've become a director that suddenly I'm no longer supposed to make movies that people want to see?
Chan: That is a tricky one. I'm not sure about this, but I think Hong Kong cinema has been influenced by the political environment to pay more attention to issues of identity, the extent to which people stick to their Hong Kong identity, and the declaration of one's political stance. Things have become political, which may not necessarily be a bad thing, although there's no need to be too firm about it.
Pang: I don't think any art form should be made in a way that it can only be comprehended by one's own ethnic group. Milan Kundera was right to say that you let down your ethnic or linguistic group if you set out to create works that are only intended for your own people, because their horizons will be progressively narrowed by prolonged exposure to your work. I think any film should be able to travel.
Chan: Let me put it this way. When I'm an audience member I also put movies into two categories: they're either mainstream or non-mainstream films. The mainstream movies include, for example, the action genre and so on, and that's a reason Jackie Chan is so famous. On the other side, there are overseas audiences who get to know about Hong Kong through our films. For example, I would get asked whether people are still being stabbed on the street nowadays. [ Chuckles] Our films have wide-ranging influences, and this is one of the more negative ones.
Pang: In my case, the one thing I fear most in my life is to make a film that features nothing but local culture. People may think that Vulgaria is a very Hong Kong-centric film. There are aspects of it, like the profanity, that may attract a bigger laugh here, but there are also gags in it that are universal, such as the part when the two film producer characters are forced to have sex with a mule. The foreign audience can understand that too. In fact, sometimes I think maybe the Greeks would understand that part even better. [ Laughs]
Chan: Because they have more mules over there? [ Both laugh] That's why I think there's another layer of interest to these films compared to their purely commercial counterparts. You forget about all those fight scenes very soon, but you remember the mule.
Chan's The Midnight After and Pang's Aberdeen will screen on the opening night of the HK International Film Festival on March 24. Chan's film opens in cinemas on April 10, while Pang's is out on May 8