Harking back to the future

TSUI Hark has been showing his face in public more often in the past two weeks than in the past six months put together. The respected director has not exactly been known for his eagerness to be interviewed, but he has been unusually talkative on television and, in newspapers and magazines.

So, you just know that Tsui has a new film out. Not just any film, but one close to his heart. Or, perhaps, one with stars close to his heart. Of late, the director appears to have taken singers Charlie Young Choi-nei and Nicky Wu Chi-lung under his expansive wings.

Tsui's latest film Love In The Time Of Twilight marks the second time that Young and Wu have worked with him, the first being The Lovers, a costume drama tear-jerker about a pair of doomed lovers set in the year 377 AD. It was a runaway hit . . . and established the teen heart-throbs as Hong Kong's hottest screen couple, saving them from a career of mediocre singing success.

It would not be the first time that Tsui has turned someone's career round. It was his Swordsman II that saved Taiwanese beauty Brigitte Lin Ching-hsia's (aka Mrs Michael 'Esprit' Ying) hiccuping career and made her a star. And, it was Tsui who plucked kung fu star Jet Li Lienchieh from nondescript mainland Shaolin flicks and gave him a new identity as the legendary Wong Fei-hung in the Once Upon A Time In China movies. Li later went on to direct his own versions.

Tsui manages an embarrassed laugh when the subject of 'turning careers around' comes up. 'Actually, I am not the kind of person who can bring out or nurture new talent,' he said, self-consciously. 'I don't claim to have made anyone a star.' The Vietnam-born film-maker, however, admits that he 'quite likes' Young and Wu: 'I like individual artists. I don't set out to change them into someone else or mould them into so-and-so.' He is adamant that he will not turn Young and Wu into the Hong Kong version of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. 'I think Ginger and Fred can be quite boring because all they can do is dance,' he said. 'Artists should look for the chance to try different things.' Hence, Love In The Time Of Twilight a period 'sci-fi' comedy set in early post-Cultural Revolution days. Young and Wu play nemeses who are brought together when Wu dies and his spirit comes back to ask Young for help. The duo have to travel back in time to 'undo' certain events to keep Wu alive. Although many might be tempted to point out similarities between this and The Lovers Tsui is quick to point out otherwise.

'The new film is more farcical and the characters are quite different,' he said. 'In The Lovers, they were both obedient youths who were filial to their parents, generous and 'nice'.' Love In The Time Of Twilight, however, brings out the darker side of human nature: petty jealousies, spite and anger.

'They are fierce and quarrelsome,' he said. 'These two [new] characters have many bad points and they're not very nice.' Tsui's movies have always featured a blend of old and new. He gave new meaning to the lion dance in his Once Upon A Time In China movies with hi-tech 'lions' and so, it should come as no surprise that he should choose to incorporate the concept of time travel into a period farce. The director, however, says it is an unintentional move.

'I never think about it in terms of setting something new against the old,' he said. 'For instance, in Swordsman II [set in Ching dynasty China], we used guns. Many shows avoid this part of history maybe because the martial arts directors couldn't figure out a way to get past the guns. But they really had guns then, so why should we avoid it? 'And, Love In The Time Of Twilight is not about the technology of time travel. It is just a means of travelling back to the past for them to meet their previous selves and put things right, which is what the story is about.' The time travel concept did bring the director new challenges, especially when the two Youngs or Wus met. 'In scenes like these, the cameras cannot be moved so the lead characters had to change clothes quite a lot,' Tsui said. 'And Charlie and Nicky are not very experienced so it's difficult for them to adapt to two different personalities. Sometimes they weren't quite sure what they should be.' Through his 18-year career as director and producer, Tsui has built up a reputation as an intuitive film-maker who could 'spot' new trends in the industry. But his films have, in the past few years, had less impact on the box office. 'It's quite natural,' he said. 'If I were successful in every project, I would not be human. There will always be failures. If not, I wouldn't need to go to work; I would be God.' And what genre does the film veteran predict for the Hong Kong film market next? 'I really don't know,' he laughed. 'Ask me again in half-a-year. I'll tell you then.' Love In The Time Of Twilight is now playing on the Golden Harvest circuit