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Chinese language cinema

Filmmaker Olivier Assayas on Wong Kar-wai, Chinese culture, and his love for classic Hong Kong cinema

Celebrated French art-house director, who was once married to actress Maggie Cheung, returns to city to present two of his films as part of this year’s Hong Kong International Film Festival

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 April, 2017, 6:37pm
UPDATED : Friday, 21 April, 2017, 6:37pm

Before he became one of the world’s most celebrated art-house filmmakers, Olivier Assayas was a film journalist with a special expertise in Hong Kong cinema.

“The one filmmaker I admire most is Wong Kar-wai,” the French director told the Post on Friday in Hong Kong, where he is due to present two of his films, Personal Shopper and Carlos, as part of this year’s Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) programme.

“I’ve been following his work, obviously, and I’ve been friends with him for quite a while now. I love all his work, but I suppose that my favourite films of his must be Days of Being Wild, Chungking Express and Fallen Angels. They are the films that impressed me the most.

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“This also has to do with the way he functioned with Chris Doyle, who has also been a friend for forever – we’ve known each other since the mid-80s,” he says.

The 62-year-old Assayas first came to the city – incidentally also for the HKIFF – as a “very young journalist” in 1984, he recalls, “basically because I was working for the French magazine Cahiers du Cinéma.” The special issue that he worked on focused on Hong Kong cinema, and martial arts films in particular.

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“I love classic Hong Kong filmmaking. I love martial arts movies,” he says.

Among his favourite filmmakers are Liu Chia-liang (“I had the pleasure and honour to meet Liu Chia-liang, who’s a great director. I love The 36th Chamber of Shaolin.”), Chang Cheh (“I love his enormous output. Disciples of Shaolin really made an impression on me the most.”), Chor Yuen (“a great, less recognised, but very important Hong Kong filmmaker”), Johnnie To (“Election is one of my favourites, but I love really a lot of [his films].”) and Stanley Kwan (“I love Centre Stage.”).

“I could go on,” Assayas says with a chuckle.

The filmmaker points out that his personal list of favourite Hong Kong filmmakers “won’t really do justice to recent, contemporary, modern Hong Kong filmmaking”, because “it’s almost 10 years since I’ve been in Hong Kong [regularly] – you know, I’d been travelling here quite a lot, but recently much less. So it means that I’m kind of out of touch with what’s happening, with the younger filmmakers.”

Assayas was married to Hong Kong star Maggie Cheung between 1998 and 2001, which helps explain why his visits have been far more sporadic since they split up.

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Hong Kong cinema’s steady integration with the much-commercialised China market has also meant that art-house festival regulars such as Assayas now have far fewer opportunities to learn about the city’s latest output. Tellingly, there hasn’t been a single Hong Kong film included in competition at the world’s top three festivals – Berlin, Cannes and Venice – since Ann Hui and Johnnie To respectively premiered A Simple Life and Life Without Principle at the 2011 Venice Film Festival.

“Yes, of course, that’s also why I haven’t been seeing the [new] films,” says Assayas.

Considering the globalised vision of his distinguished oeuvre, I ask if the French director would be tempted to make a film that is potentially for the Chinese audience.

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“I love China, and I always like the idea of doing things I have not done. So you know, if the right project came up in the right context, yes, totally, I would love to have the opportunity.”

“It’s also because I love the energy,” Assayas continues. “You know, when you make movies, you need to function in the culture, that kind of helps you and stimulates you, and I think right now, China is certainly – it has been for a long time, and it still is – one of the driving forces of modern culture. So it’s exciting to be part of that. It can certainly energise the filmmaking.”

Personal Shopper is tentatively scheduled to open on May 11 in Hong Kong. Look out for SCMP.com’s extensive interview with Olivier Assayas ahead of the release.

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