THE WAY THAT ACTRESS Charlie Young Choi-nei tells it, her directorial and screenwriting debut Christmas Rose came about with no small amount of help from her friends. The film, a controversial courtroom drama that tackles sexual harassment, opens on Young’s 39th birthday (May 23).
Christmas Rose is produced by veteran filmmaker Tsui Hark, who has directed Young in five films, including classic romantic tearjerker The Lovers (1994) and the martial arts actioner Seven Swords (2005). It’s co-produced by Jacob Cheung Chi-leung, the director of Intimates (1997), an affecting women’s drama which starred Young and Carina Lau Kar-ling. The film has its origins in an idea for a book that Young was considering writing in 2008. “But then I got thinking, ‘Why don’t I try something else instead of using just words?’ And then I thought of using something visual, because I love to watch movies and I often get inspiration from them,” she says. Once she had envisioned creating a cinematic work, inspiration came quickly, she explains: “The ideas came to me very fast, and I started trying them.”
The film stars Aaron Kwok Fu-shing – who has appeared in four films with Young – as an idealistic lawyer leading the prosecution’s case against a renowned doctor (Chang Chen) who is accused of rape by a wheelchair-bound patient (Kwai Lun-mei). The patient also happens to teach piano to the doctor’s daughter and the prosecuting attorney’s fiancée. Although the doctor protests his innocence, even his wife (Qin Hailu) starts doubting him when the prosecution presents its case in court. But he has a top defence lawyer (Xia Yu), and casts doubts on what the doctor’s accuser says took place when the two of them were left alone for a few minutes in the examination room of his clinic.
Young has written columns for publications in Malaysia, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Those unfamiliar with her prose may be surprised to learn how seriously she takes it. “I always feel when writing a column that it’s a platform to communicate with the readers, and I always treasure that. I never take it lightly,” she says.
Even after she started thinking of a film rather than a book, the sweet-faced woman who’s graced more than 20 films in almost 20 years sought to make sure that it would be a “a movie that involves good writing, a good script”.
Perhaps because her focus was on ensuring that her script would be of a high quality, “Writing was the most challenging part of this production. It was the part that took the longest time, I felt that the script must be ready before anything else. So I didn’t rush it for any schedule,” she says.
For much of the time she was working on the script, “I wasn’t thinking of directing,” Young says. “Instead, I was thinking that if I can come up with a good story that is worth sharing then maybe a good director will agree to do it. But I have some good director friends and because I kept interacting with them and telling them about the story, they saw me improving – to the point that one of them asked me, ‘Why don’t you direct? You know the story, you know what you want.’ So that’s why I became this film’s director,” she says.
Young names Christmas Rose’s two producers, Tsui and Cheung, as among the filmmakers who have given her considerable encouragement over the years. “I think our relationship is quite amazing because they are mentors and I respect them always. But they are also my close friends. So I do share with them details about my personal life, what I want to do, how I see things. And they are always very supportive,” she says.
Another director Young credits for being a good sounding board, both professionally and personally, is Oxide Pang Chun, “the husband of my best friend, [fellow actress] Lee Sinje”, and the director of four films starring Christmas Rose’s leading man, Aaron Kwok. Of Kwok himself, Young says: “We’re very close friends and he’s always been supportive of me at different stages of life.
I remember when I was writing the script and showed it to him, he said he wanted to be in it. Aaron felt that it would be a challenge for him, so he was interested.”
Young laughs when I tell her about reports in which Tsui described her as cultured, refined, courteous and polite – and generally atypically good-tempered for a director. She laughs again when she hears that some of the film’s cast said they had been worried about the film’s subject matter and the parts they had been assigned to play in Christmas Rose. “They were just kidding,” she says. “All the gentlemen in my film are good friends of mine and I appreciate that they are all very passionate about their work. So when they knew I was really going to give it a try, they supported me.”
But while she’s known Kwok, Chang and Xia for some time, she only became acquainted with Christmas Rose’s female lead when working on the film. “Kwai Lun-mei was suggested by the film’s producers because both Tsui Hark and Jacob Cheung had worked with her before. When they brought up her name, I thought, ‘Yes, she’s a good person for the role,’ because she is one of those people who can sometimes look a bit weak, and sometimes a bit strong. That’s something that’s very good for an actress,” Young says.
The drama aims to show that there’s often much more to events and people than initially meets the eye. “I need two people to play the doctor and the piano teacher – and both of them need to have this sort of ambiguous, chameleon-type personality,” she says. This helps ensure that as the multiple twists of the plot play out, viewers will change their minds about who is really telling the truth.
Young feels that, as with Kwai, Chang “can appear like a good person, other times a bad person, sometimes weak, sometimes strong, sometimes trustworthy, sometimes not”.
She adds: “I also needed the actors playing the doctor and the victim to have the same amount of popularity among the audience – and Chang Chen and Kwai Lun-mei are good choices based on this.
“I’m not trying to use this film to tell people who is wrong and who is right. It’s just in my heart. I always feel that it’s hard to come out and take a wide view of what’s going on. Not many people try to understand why something has happened. But there’s always a story behind an action.”