Usually Hong Kong's Hollywood-bound all wax lyrical about how physically comfortable making an international film is. Besides the personal trailers and the newfangled equipment, union rules usually make it necessary to work a fixed number of hours a day - unlike Hong Kong films where filming round-the-clock has almost become a way of life. So I was a little sceptical when Yim Ho said that he had just gone through the most punishing eight weeks of his life working on a 'Hollywood' production, Pavilion Of Women. In fact, the 46-year-old director looked younger and even more relaxed than the last time we met late last year. But Pavilion Of Women can be said to have two essential differences with the Hollywood movies that other Hong Kong directors have worked on. Made on an extremely modest budget of about US$5 million (about HK$39 million), the Universal Pictures-Beijing Film Studio co-production was shot entirely in Shanghai and Suzhou. The film will be the first made-in-China production to be distributed in the United States. 'The standard working hours are about 12 hours a day, with a day off every week, but we were pushing more than 14 hours seven days a week. The only time we got off was when we switched from night to morning shooting,' Yim said, just before he left for Los Angeles to start post-production work last week. 'The problem was that the script was very long but Universal didn't want it cut so we had to shoot a lot of extra scenes.' The film is based on a Pearl S Buck novel of the same name and the script is written by former mainland actress Luo Yan, who also stars and produces. Academy Award nominee Willem Dafoe plays an American missionary who falls in love with Luo's Madame Wu, a wealthy landowner's wife, in 1937 war-torn China. Luo put up much of her own money for the production and got all the major players together. She and Universal Pictures approached Yim last November to take over the helm after an American director did not work out. 'I don't think it's a matter of who's better, usually it's a matter of chemistry. When the American director did not work out, she decided she wanted a Chinese director,' explained Yim. Luo could not have found a better choice, however. Not only is the award-winning director known for his introspective treatment of films, Yim is also extensively experienced in filming on the mainland. An important part of the New Wave directors who had their start in television, including Tsui Hark and Ann Hui, Yim made his first film in 1978 but made his mark in 1984 with Homecoming, the first local movie to deal with the subject of Hong Kong-mainland residents' relationships. Along the way, he also made films such as The King Of Chess (with Tsui) and Red Dust. His most recent movies include award-winners The Day The Sun Turned Cold, The Sun Has Ears and Kitchen, based on the book by Banana Yoshimoto. The Sun Has Ears won Yim the best director award at the Berlin Film Festival in 1996. Pavilion Of Women provided a lot of new experiences for Yim, none the least of which was being required by the bond company to pass a physical examination before he could start the project. 'I think they're afraid you might not be able to finish the project. I was in Suzhou doing pre-production work when they insisted I see their affiliated doctor in Shanghai so I was joking with my crew that I would be fired if I wasn't fit enough. They joked that I was going to be banished to a remote area for hard labour,' Yim added with a laugh. Because it was a US-China collaboration with a Hong Kong director, Yim had to contend with working with a mixed crew comprising Americans, his own people from Hong Kong and production staff from the Beijing Film Studio, including about 80 of Zhang Yimou's crew. Unlike in Hollywood, where even Jackie Chan had to battle to get more than two of his own crew to work on Rush Hour, Yim did not have as much trouble getting his Hong Kong director of photography, Poon Hang-shang and action director James Leung Wah-sang, among others. 'If you can convince them, then it would be OK. It's just that the process of convincing takes a lot of time and effort. They kept hiring the wrong people for the jobs, maybe a mix-up over the job description. For instance, they hired a very good action director who worked on television series, but his speciality was computer effects, so he could not contribute anything on the set. However, his computer effects are outstanding,' Yim said. 'In the end, the American crew comprised mainly pyrotechnicians, while the rest were from China. But even the Chinese crew were not used to working 14-hour days; I think the toughest of the lot were still the Hong Kongers. They're so adaptable.' Juggling the sensitivities of the US studio, the Beijing studio and even Luo - she is understandably a little possessive about the project since it is her baby - Yim sometimes felt caught in the middle. 'The whole process came down to communication and persuasion. If a person found that difficult to do, then he would have a tough time but I have always thought communication was an integral part of the production process, so it was all right for me,' said a diplomatic Yim. 'I've worked for many years in China. Sometimes I come up alone and work with a whole mainland crew. I know a lot of my colleagues find it difficult working up there but to me, the secret is communication. In this case, we needed to communicate even more because there were so many people from different places. And, if your actor plays three roles then you have to pretend you are talking to three persons not one. It took more time and sometimes made things more difficult, but it wasn't a real problem.' Although Willem Dafoe's Hollywood status made Yim naturally cautious of the star initially, the director now can hardly stop singing Dafoe's praises. Calling the actor the 'most professional' and 'most creative' artist he had ever worked with, Yim benefited from many of the actor's suggestions. Yim chuckled as he recalled how they made sure that Dafoe's contractual perks were provided for, including the mandatory trailer - and even a portable flush toilet. 'You know how terrible the toilets are in China,' Yim said, 'but Willem hardly ever used his trailer and he was queueing up for meals and went to the public toilets like everyone else.' Despite the rushed circumstances, Yim is very happy with what he has seen on film so far. More importantly, he added, studio representatives who went on location to check on progress were impressed. Universal's director of international distribution, Ted Perkins, has already told the China Daily that the studio was 'convinced' that the film will have everything it needed to please critics and be a box office hit around the world. 'They said they could not imagine that we could achieve such standards,' Yim confirmed happily. 'They said they loved it so much that they were thinking of sending in nominations for the Academy Awards. And when we told them that we might go over-budget, they assured us money is not a problem. In all the years I have been a director, it's the first time someone told me money is not a problem. It was quite ironical. Usually we are told not to spend so much.' But Pavilion Of Women came in within the allocated budget even with the lengthy script. In the good times, most Hong Kong productions budgeted their film on a ratio of 8:1 - which means you only have eight chances to get the scene right. With production budgets shrinking these days, a lot are now going on a ratio of 5:1 or even 3:1. Yim, however, had the luxury of having 75,000 metres of film to shoot the necessary 3,400 metres needed - a ratio of about 22:1. 'But I only used about 73,000 metres which is a lot more than what action films use. It's the most I've ever shot but the studio thought I was being thrifty,' Yim said. If money was not a problem then casting was, however. Since the film was in English or rather 'American English' - 'the producers insisted they had to speak with American accents' - Yim pulled more than 500 people off the streets for auditions but was only able to cast about eight. Hong Kong's lone representative on the acting front is veteran Shek Sau. 'The standard of English in China is a lot lower than in Hong Kong and it was really difficult to find people. The people we finally cast were either educators or university students.' Therein lay another problem: none of them were professional actors. Luckily, however, this was where family came in useful. Yim's son, on holiday from New York University, where he is majoring in drama, took on the role as assistant acting coach. But call it fate or call it pure luck, in hindsight Yim believes that even the gods were looking after him. Despite this year being the wettest season in Jiangsu in a century, the filming schedule was not disrupted at all. The rain even helped cool the normally high summer temperatures. 'I think the rain only disrupted our work for half a day. Most of the time, we were doing indoor shoots when it was raining but when we needed to go on location, it stopped raining,' he said. 'By the time the sun came out and the weather started getting very hot, we were past the most difficult scenes and had only about a week's work left. It was lucky, because I can imagine if we had to shoot the war scene in that heat [in the 40s], I think we'd still be there now! The extras would go hide in the shade or would be very sluggish. It would be a nightmare.' As it was, one of the scenes where a young child had to herd about 100 ducks across a bridge was affected. More than 80 of the ducks either died or were unable to move because of the heat. 'In the end, the boy only herded fewer than 20 across,' Yim said. 'But on the whole, I was really grateful to the gods for looking on us. That's why my first toast after we wrapped up filming was to them.' And, if the studios are true to their word and Pavilion Of Women makes it to the Oscars, Yim will definitely have more reasons to be toasting the gods.