LAWRENCE GRAY IS probably best known in Hong Kong for his contribution to the literary scene. He founded the Hong Kong Writer's Circle. Yet last week the Briton, who has never made a film, edged out acclaimed directors to win the Hong Kong Asia Film Financing Forum's award for the most promising local project. Gray, who has lived in the city for 15 years, is taking his first steps towards a creative rebirth: to become a filmmaker. 'This is new ground for me, doing independent movies,' he says, a steaming cup of coffee in his hands and a hint of apprehension in his voice. On the first day of the premier financing event for Asian filmmakers, Gray and business partner Asad Sultan were waiting nervously to meet a potential backer. 'I was always warned never to go into independent filmmaking,' Gray says. 'You could lose your house, your wife and everything.' Gray's project, Fat Englishmen, isn't big by industry standards, but it's a risky venture. Budgeted at US$4 million, the movie calls for filming on location in England and Japan. Being an ensemble piece will add to travel costs. And in contrast to the movie-industry veterans dominating the forum, Gray and Sultan, an investment banker, are novices. (Frank Lin, perhaps the greenest of the directors pitching the other 24 projects, is backed by Harvey Keitel.) By the time the forum ended last Thursday, Fat Englishmen beat projects submitted by the likes of seasoned directors Fruit Chan Kuo and Gordon Chan Ka-seung to land the $100,000 award for local entries, an astonishing boost to first-time filmmakers. The sum isn't much - Gray and Sultan had made a good start in securing backing, having obtained US$800,000 through previous deals. Nonetheless, it's peer recognition. Gray is surprised by how well his proposal has been received. Given the competition, its inclusion at the forum is already something of a feat. He even pushed aside established arthouse directors such as Kit Hui and Kazuyoshi Kumakiri. That's the power of an arresting idea, backed by a meaty script. Fat Englishmen's rock-solid narrative was a hit with forum organisers. Rather than field a vaporous, meandering summary, Gray presented a simple and savvy story - 'a very easily pitchable' treatment, he says. A road movie of sorts, Fat Englishmen is the tale of five oversized and demoralised workers from Hull who get a ticket out of northern English gloom when they're chosen to fly to Japan to appear as sumo wrestlers in an ad campaign. In Hollywood terms, it's Lost in Translation meets The Full Monty. Gray freely acknowledges both movies influenced his treatment for Fat Englishmen. The trip turns out to be more than an all-expenses-paid junket to the exotic orient. Wracked by guilt and impotence, and mocked by tabloids at home, the quintet embark on a journey of discovery - of another culture and of themselves. Gray's story was inspired by a documentary he saw about a group of drinking buddies who had a judo instructor friend. 'He told them, 'There's a competition that you can go in for - sumo wrestling. You guys are big and fat, I'll teach you a few moves and you could go places'. That's hilarious - I didn't know whether it was a spoof , but these guys were covered in tattoos and saying, 'All you have to do is be fat? We can do that'. That hung in the back of my mind for years,' says Gray, who was something of a sumo fan. Gray has been a screenwriter for British television. His credits included such series as The Bill and Yellowthread Street, and work on an action thriller for Yorkshire TV brought him to a demonstration-fuelled Hong Kong in 1989. But he says he probably wouldn't have been able to write a script about how people respond in an alien environment that would ring true without having moved to Hong Kong.'The inter-relationship between different cultures can't be done unless you have experienced it,' he says. 'You see so many scripts [based in foreign countries] written by people who have only read a book - people in Los Angeles who hung out in scriptwriting courses.' A graduate in economics and politics, he quit his screenwriting job to follow his wife to Hong Kong in 1990, when she got a job teaching pharmacology at the Chinese University - 'an offer she couldn't refuse', he says. Gray welcomed the move, thinking he could easily carve a niche for himself in the local film industry. 'Idiotically I thought, 'Well, they've got a film industry, I'll go there and do some TV stuff. And I know some action stuff, I could do something on kung fu movies',' Gray says. Instead, he found a movie industry that was starting to unravel. 'John Woo [Yu-sum] was on the plane to LA the same time I was coming in,' he says. 'I should have noticed that everybody else was running off to Singapore and Los Angeles.' There were no film jobs to be had, and language was a barrier. 'Nobody [in the industry] spoke any English then and I didn't speak any Cantonese. When they heard my English they just slammed the phone down.' Gray decided to spend a year learning Cantonese. But by the time he finished, the industry had virtually collapsed. That's when he thought it might be time to write the novel he was always going on about. These days, he does a little script-doctoring for local movies and still writes the odd screenplay - he's now working on a script about Lord Curzon and his invasion of Tibet. But Gray's standing in Hong Kong rests primarily on his literary ventures. Besides founding the Writer's Circle, a peer group for aspiring scribes, he edits The Wild East literary magazine and anthologies of local writing. 'When I first came, it was all very depressing,' he says. 'There wasn't a literary scene to speak of and the English-language section was a bunch of clapped-out, old bureaucrats writing their memoirs - and very boring ones, too. 'Since then, there has been a lot going on. An infrastructure is being put in place without government help.' Gray says Hong Kong has done wonders for his writing. 'The move made my writing colourful,' he says. 'It stopped being about being miserable or the struggle between the upper class and the working class.' He has related his departure from what he now sees as parochial Britain to the characters in Fat Englishmen. 'Hull isn't famous for its welcoming nature - it's a staunchly white-meat place. So [Japan] opens up the world for these guys. Suddenly they've got options, ambitions and choices simply because they can be outside of this grey northern sky which keeps them down. They take their chances in another cultural set-up where they discover more similarities than alienation.' Gray feels a similar sense of liberation with Fat Englishmen and other projects he and Sultan are pursuing through their production company, Idol Films. They bring him into alien and exciting territory. 'We've got to a point where one doesn't need the money as much,' he says. 'When you're young and desperate, when your life is on the line, people take advantage of that. Now we can wallow in the charm of the process. Although my wife was saying, 'Quick, Lawrence, I'll be up for retirement in 10 years'.'