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Chinese language cinema

How Chow Yun-fat and Aaron Kwok trusted Felix Chong to direct them in Project Gutenberg

Director is celebrated for scripting hits such as the Infernal Affairs trilogy and Overheard series, which he also helmed, yet struggles to get his stories told. He has his supporters, though

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 October, 2018, 4:33pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 October, 2018, 7:48pm

Best known for scripting the Infernal Affairs trilogy, and writing and directing the Overheard series, Felix Chong Man-keung’s second solo directing effort, Project Gutenberg, is a surprise-laden crime drama that mirrors the Hong Kong filmmaker’s own artistic struggles.

The film sees Aaron Kwok Fu-shing’s failed painter join up with Chow Yun-fat’s fabled counterfeiter in an increasingly dangerous scheme to produce fake US banknotes.

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On a recent weekend, Chong sat down with the Post in his Hong Kong office to discuss the unpredictable nature of filmmaking.

Overheard 3 in 2014 was the last film you directed. What have you been doing since then?

I wrote the screenplay for Extraordinary Mission [2017, directed by Alan Mak Siu-fai and Anthony Pun Yiu-ming]. I also spent time writing other scripts. I actually have a lot of completed screenplays, but when I show them to the bosses they always ask, “Can you do Infernal Affairs 4 instead? Or Overheard 4?” Let me tell you: I do have a script for Overheard 4 ready, but the subject matter is sensitive, so we can’t kick off that project yet. I finished writing that in 2014.

Screenplays for most Hong Kong films are collaborative efforts, but you’re often credited as a sole screenwriter. Do you always write alone?

Yes, and Alan [Mak] is good [at letting me work on my own]. It’s like what Shinobu Hashimoto, one of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s screenwriters, claimed in his book when it comes to [their co-writer] Hideo Oguni: “The screenplays are all written by me, and Oguni was only there to comment if they’re good or not.”

Where did you get the idea for Project Gutenberg ?

I was researching online for another screenplay and accidentally came across this batch of materials about counterfeit money. I got addicted and read about the subject for an entire week. This story took its early form in 2006.

After that, Alan and I opened this [film production] company in 2007. Business was bad and every script failed to pass censors. We then shot Lady Cop & Papa Crook (2008) and it was re-cut by others [for censorship reasons] into a total mess. I felt like my career was finished for good, that my talents were limited, so I came up with this story [about a failed artist].

Have you recovered from those early failures?

Not yet. The Infernal Affairs series was a great inspiration for me, because we didn’t have any financial baggage when we made those films. The examples of failure are always when we obey creatively. It’s a sure-fire disaster when we obey – I don’t know why, but that’s the case every time.

When I started on Project Gutenberg, everyone told me that its story was not going to work. But I’m lucky. I’ve accumulated some trust over the years, and I’m also relatively good at handling scripts, so the actors tend to trust me. The most important part is that Chow Yun-fat didn’t touch my screenplay, and so nobody else dared to. [Laughs] Aaron Kwok also trusts me a lot.

The first half of Project Gutenberg is a slow-moving drama that shows us the meticulous process of making counterfeit money, then the film shifts gears and turns into a twisty action thriller. Did you initially plan it this way?

Our market is quite funny, in that [it believes] one film shouldn’t restrict itself to only one style. I believe in hybrid movies. Have you watched Bong Joon-ho’s The Host? In my opinion that’s the film of the new era – it combines every genre. And this is also a reflection on the internet culture. In a film you need a lot of different elements, as if you’re browsing the internet.

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Look at Hello, Mrs Money, Shadow and Project Gutenberg – three movies opening in China on National Day [October 1] – they’re all about substitutes or double identities. It’s been said that maybe this reflects our times; we are experiencing this every day and not even realising it. On your Facebook or Instagram page, is that really you [or your alternative persona]?

We’re affected by our times when we write. People think that screenwriters, like me, can tell whatever story we want to, but that’s absolutely not the case. We make hybrid movies because we’re in a hybrid era.

Your most celebrated story, the modern classic Infernal Affairs , was also praised for reflecting the times.

Infernal Affairs was about changes in identities. That’s of course what we all thought about in the post-1997 period [after Britain handed Hong Kong back to China]. That was normal.

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It’s funny you said it’s a classic. We were just chatting about the film yesterday. It is overwhelmingly well received by the Chinese audiences nowadays, but people forget that when the film was first released back in the day, the critical reception was only 50-50. Half of the audiences were criticising the movie, and you can go back to look that up on the internet.

You know how all that changed? It was when Brad Pitt asked to see the movie. Then the discussion changed. How absurd is that?

Looking ahead, do you know what your next film project will be?

I don’t know yet. The investors aren’t showing interest in my stories.

Why not? You’re making crime thrillers, which are probably as marketable as commercial movies come.

In the case of Project Gutenberg, the investor told me, “When I read the first 10 pages of your screenplay, it looks like you’re telling a story about the art scene”. We’ve collaborated for many years and I’ve made quite a bit of money for him, so he’s supporting me regardless.

But if you read those books that teach you how to pitch stories in Hollywood, they always tell you to write well in the first 10 pages or so. In fact, when I was working at [film production company] Golden Harvest at the start of my career, I always received masterful screenplays which were wonderful to read in their first 10 pages, and then it was all rubbish from there. My job was to rewrite what came after those 10 pages.

So, will I change now [and learn to front-load my screenplays]? I hope I can. But I’m not going to change the nature of my stories. There are also industry veterans who have taught us to write “fake screenplays”, but I don’t want to do that, either.

Project Gutenberg opens on October 4

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