The Wynners’ drummer on directing a film about the iconic Hong Kong band, and their lasting brotherhood
‘House of the Rising Sons’ is an accurate history of the popular ’70s Hong Kong band and the music scene of the time, but for director Anthony Chan, also The Wynners’ drummer, casting his bandmates – and himself – was a challenge
Most filmmakers direct from the heart. But Anthony Chan Yau, who achieved fame as the drummer in the popular 1970s Hong Kong band The Wynners, is doubly invested in his new film House of the Rising Sons as it tells the story of the band, and features an actor playing his younger self.
“If it wasn’t for The Wynners I would not be doing what I am doing,” Chan tells the Post in an interview at the New York Asian Film Festival earlier this month. “That’s why I wanted to do this story – it’s so close to my heart.”
It has been more than 25 years since Chan directed his last film, My Americanised Wife (1992). “Since 1993, I have been in China working on a content-related business, so I have been part of the corporate world for over 20 years. I decided that I wanted to do things from the heart, rather than by using my brain – and that’s how this film was born.”
The Wynners were one of Hong Kong’s most influential groups, debuting in 1974 with the English-language album Listen to the Wynners. They soon switched to singing in Cantonese – at the behest of their record company, Chan says – and, with Sam Hui Koon-kit, were among the earliest exponents of the Canto-pop genre.
The band went their separate ways in 1978, with the two frontmen, Alan Tam Wing-lun and Kenny Bee (aka Chung Chun-to), going on to superstardom as solo stars. Chan had already directed a movie, Let’s Rock, which featured The Wynners, in 1975 and he wound up in the film industry as an actor and director, before quitting for the corporate world in the 1990s.
House of the Rising Sons – named after the classic song The House of the Rising Sun by The Animals, a continual inspiration for The Wynners – is a colourful, playful pastiche of Hong Kong life, and the city’s music scene, in the 1970s.
But in spite of its occasional flights of fancy the film is, Chan insists, an accurate history of the band and their times. Everything in the movie – including the group’s accidental choice of their first name, “The Loosers”, during a battle of the bands competition – really did happen.
“It’s all real, although I did compress some things. The feelings, the drama, are all real, even if they are a bit exaggerated,” he says.
There’s a certain amount of nostalgia involved, he notes. “After so many years, the memories have softened. I feel sorry about many things that I did when I was a kid – for instance, I made noise playing drums in my friends’ houses rather than in my house.” But it’s the story of the whole band, not just his own history, he says. “I aggregated my brothers’ history for this story. It’s not just about me.”
Memories of that time are so deeply ingrained in his mind that Chan says he didn’t have to do much research. “I spent a few sessions talking with my brothers [the Wynners] at dinner. We talked a lot and recorded some conversations, some stuff. We tried to find something else to add but there was nothing – everything was already there. I had kept it all in my mind.”
He says it was fascinating to watch an actor portraying his younger self, adding that he had given all the actors some leeway in how they performed – they didn’t have to be carbon copies of the originals – so that they could be themselves and feel comfortable. But he did require his casting choices to be able to play their instruments, something which boosts the authenticity of the film.
“I had to find a good drummer, as it would not have worked with an actor pretending to play drums,” he says. “I found Ng Hok-him, who is a good drummer. He had never acted before, but he had a cheeky personality that I felt was right. I developed the script based on his personality, not mine. He did the things I did in the film, but we focused on his own personality. That way he did not need to act – he could just be himself.”
There was some added drama during the shoot for young Ng. “He had a band [Silhungmo], but because of the shooting schedule, he missed some performances. So they fired him and he lost his band. He was very upset during filming. I comforted him, and the other actors did, too. It was like being brothers all over again,” Chan says.
Casting Alan Tam and Kenny Bee – who, like the other members of The Wynners, briefly appear in the film as themselves – was a challenge, as their faces are so well known. Chan found Eugene Tang, who plays Tam, in Taiwan, although he was born in Calgary, in Canada. “He had joined a boy band [GTM] in Taiwan. He spoke mainly English, and his Cantonese wasn’t that good. He was stunning and he looked like Alan Tam. I said to him, you are Alan Tam, you have the same sunniness and innocence. So he was in straightaway.
“Yu Tan, who plays Kenny Bee, is from Tianjin. He looks like Kenny Bee and he plays saxophone.”
The shots of Hong Kong have a touch of unreality to them, but that’s intended, Chan says. He shot the film on a set in a film studio in Guangdong, and used the extra control resulting from working on a sound stage to add a touch of fantasy.
Chan had a lot of fun recreating vanished music venues in Lockhart Road in Hong Kong’s Wan Chai party district. “I used real places in the film. There was a club called Downtown there, and we played in it. But I took the look from another club called The Cave, which was also on Lockhart Road. I put them together. There were always a lot of American sailors in those places, stopping off in Hong Kong on their way to the war in Vietnam,” he says.
The Wynners never formerly disbanded, and still play sell-out concerts in Hong Kong from time to time. They are still great friends – a true band of brothers, Chan says. “We have known each other since we were 10,” Chan says.
“We were all bad boys on the streets, we had fights together, and that all led to a kind of brotherhood. When we formed the band, we had no plans. We just followed our hearts – we went against our families, and we stuck together. When we faced challenges from outsiders, we knew who was good at what.
“Everyone in the band had their own talents, so it was like an organisation. We stopped arguing and came to respect each other. It was like having long and short fingers – together they can make a good punch.”
Chan is always pleased to get together with the other band members. “The Wynners were very special. It’s very difficult to find a band like that.”
House of the Rising Sons opens on July 19
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