Rise of the indie upstarts
A U.F.O. has landed and while it is unlikely to send the populace running in fear, it is alien enough to the film-making industry to command a degree of wariness.
The United Film-makers Organisation (U.F.O.) is a first: an independent film-makers' collective. And it is packing some clout.
Seasoned professionals Peter Chan Ho-sun, Jacob Cheung, Chi Li, Eric Tsang and Claudie Chung got together when they decided they no longer wanted any part of the production line product the industry had been pumping out in the past decade.
''We want to make films that mean something, we want to make a difference,'' said Chan, who directed Tom, Dick and Hairy under the U.F.O. umbrella.
For the group, that means getting away from the formulaic way of making films prevalent in the greed-obsessed '80s.
Focusing on good storytelling and human relationships, U.F.O. is going back to what it terms the basics of good film-making.
''Film-makers have been playing it on the safe side since the mid-'80s,'' explained Chan. ''Chinese films have become boring, mechanical.'' Although the group had worked together previously, it was not until last year that Tsang, Chan and Chung joined forces.
Comedian, actor, director and producer, the multi-talented Tsang brought his contacts and expertise.
Chung, who had worked with Tsui Hark, took over the business side, including production and distribution.
Chan, a director, writer and producer, had made a name for himself with Alan and Eric, starring Tsang and Alan Tam.
Later, Cheung and Li came aboard. Li had experience as a scriptwriter, director and producer. Cheung, of Cageman fame, had spent years struggling to get his films made. Labelled an ''art'' director, much to his dismay, funding had never been easy to find.
''There are no art movies, only good or bad movies,'' said Cheung. ''People think of me as an art director, but I believe that no matter what the subject, I try my best to communicate with an audience in a light comical way. I want to have a message in my movies, but I can easily get people to accept the message.'' Determined to defy the trend of making period costume dramas, they set out on their first collaborative effort: Tom, Dick and Hairy.
With Li the main scriptwriter and Chan directing, they pooled their efforts to make this funny, touching story of three bachelors living together.
Compared with the $30 million budget of costume dramas, the cost of $7.5 million was relatively low-budget.
Through their previous connections, they were able sign box office draw Tony Leung Kar-fai (The Lover ).
While the subject matter was unconventional, the treatment was far from avant-garde. Comical and well-paced, the film even included a party scene complete with karaoke-style song.
''Tom, Dick and Hairy is not a mainstream commercial film in Hongkong because the mainstream is so narrow here,'' said Cheung.
But U.F.O. was convinced that by packaging its films properly it would penetrate a market being left uncatered for: the bilingual Chinese audience.
The film made $15 million in its first two weeks.
U.F.O. has three films in the pipeline. Chan and Li are co-directing one about two scoundrels acting as religious leaders, playing on people's fear of Hongkong's unstable political situation in order to make money. Cheung will direct a film about family values, in which a father's imminent death pulls together a family. Comedian Michael Hui is scheduled to play the father.
The third, directed by Tsang, is titled The Funeral and will be about a family returning for the funeral of the father only to find the family members did not know him at all.
Chan also recently co-produced YesterYou, YesterMe, Yesterday.
''We are not like the Hongkong New Wave or the new wave French of the '60s who wanted to do something totally different. We don't want to break rules or shock. We don't aim to change the world or the whole movie industry, but we want to put some sense back into cinema. We are not against commercial films, but we know the cost of making a movie and that it has to be a business,'' said Chan.
U.F.O.'s union was an admission that united they could make movies their way, while divided they would continue to struggle.
''The odds are against us,'' admitted Chan.