Hong Kong film director Michael Hui on 30 years of writer’s block – ‘It’s like I’m trying to build a nuclear bomb’ – and why he has no regrets
- Michael Hui Koon-man, honoured for lifetime achievement in the 2022 Hong Kong Film Awards, still hopes to make more films – if he can pen the right script
- A perfectionist, Hui, who last directed a film in 1992, keeps throwing away the screenplays he’s written since, and confesses none of his past films please him
It may seem strange to put the name of one of Hong Kong’s greatest filmmakers in the same sentence as writer’s block, but there is a case to be made that Michael Hui Koon-man has been suffering from exactly that for the past 30 years.
Hui’s career came full circle on July 17 when he received the Hong Kong Film Award for Lifetime Achievement – 40 years after he was named best actor for his part in Security Unlimited, which he wrote and directed, in the awards’ first edition back in 1982.
In a change from other interviews that have taken a retrospective look at his many achievements, the writer, director, actor and sometime stand-up comedian sat down with the Post on the day of the Hong Kong Film Awards to ponder what lies ahead.
How do you feel about receiving the lifetime achievement award?
When I won the best actor award 40 years ago, I thought the trophies would just keep coming my way – and I got nothing for the next 40 years!
You couldn’t make it to the ceremony to receive your best actor award in 1982, so this is the first time you have taken the stage to receive a Hong Kong Film Award.
I definitely thought there would be more to come. And this isn’t really a proper award; this is just a token of sympathy. [Laughs]
Are you still preparing a screenplay for your next film?
Yes, I’m still thinking about how I should direct my next film – I want to keep making comedy films. I’m also spending time with my grandkids and on my favourite activities, such as fishing.
When I last met you in 2017, you were hoping to start shooting your next film that year. What happened?
When I told you that I was hoping I could start shooting in a year or two.
What are you waiting for?
The screenplay. I just think it’s not good enough yet. After I talked to you, I sat on the script for another year. When I came back to look at it again, I thought ‘it’s not up to my standards’, so I threw it away. I’ve thrown away so many [over the years].
So you’ve spent over two decades writing and throwing away screenplays.
Have you found out what the problem is?
I’m getting closer to the answer. You’re putting together a bunch of jokes in a comedy – and you don’t necessarily need a great story [to link them up]. But I was telling myself that, for me to get better, I should have a good story to put all the jokes into.
That sounds simple enough, but then I thought: instead of a good story, can I come up with a highly original story that can shock the world and has never been told before? I don’t know. I still haven’t come up with one such story in 20 years.
Don’t you think you’re being too much of a perfectionist?
At first, I thought it would be very easy. Well, the story doesn’t necessarily have to shock the world. [Laughs] But at least it has to be something that I haven’t done before.
If you manage to come up with something that you’ve never done before, would we still be able to recognise it as a Michael Hui film?
You’re thinking through the questions that I’m going through in my mind! I think it’ll be fine. If you get to see a new comedy film directed by me one day, you may not think it’s very different from my previous films, but you will see a little bit of difference in it.
You may find that it has a story that would work just as well even if it’s not told in a comedy. Honestly, even The Private Eyes has been frequently criticised [for its lack of story]: ‘It’s just two private detectives walking around. What kind of a story is that?’.
You became a Hong Kong film legend before turning 50, then spent the next 30 years struggling to create a “good enough” screenplay. Doesn’t that sound absurd to you?
I don’t want to go back to what I did before. It’s not much fun, or exciting, to repeat yourself. But when you don’t want to keep doing what you’ve done, it proves to be very difficult.
When do you expect your next directing project to happen?
I’ll make sure to set up an interview with you – you’ve been asking me about this since 2017! I hope it can happen next year.
The major reason is that my wife has reminded me I’m almost turning 80. If I don’t start soon, I won’t have too much time left for filmmaking. My dream is to make more films and win another award. I should learn from Patrick Tse; it would be great to win something again at the Hong Kong Film Awards.
Maybe you should just go with what you have now?
Filmmaking is a serious matter to me. A film is never just a film; it’s the final result of an experiment that I’ve been doing for a long time. It’s like I’m trying to build a nuclear bomb. Will it finally explode [as planned]? That’s how it feels to me.
Which of your past films are you the most satisfied with?
None so far. I never dare to watch my own films because I think they’re not good enough. I can see too many flaws in them.
Do you have any regrets career wise?
Every one of us only has several dozen years to live, so I won’t say I have any regrets. But I do hope that I can figure out – sooner, rather than later – what comedies of the future should look like. There are fewer and fewer comedies [being made], and they are increasingly difficult to pull off.
Is comedy more about talent or is it something that can be learned?
I don’t know. In my case, I think it is all by chance. When I started [in this business], I considered myself a gentle and good-looking fellow, and I thought I should be doing dramas. But [my producer at TVB] Selina Chow Liang Shuk-yee told me that I neither had the looks [to be a movie star] nor the singing voice [to be a pop singer], so I belonged only to comedies.
She was right. It turned out that I have a funny face for comedies – it’s all by chance.
What is your favourite aspect of making a film?
Screenwriting. I think nothing matters in a film other than telling a good story. As long as you have a good story, it doesn’t matter as much whether you have a star-filled cast, a big budget or special effects – those are all in support of your story.
If the story is bad, nothing can save a film. It is the most fun – and also most difficult – for me to come up with a good screenplay. The competition for your attention is fierce in this era, and a story must be really original to stand out today.
Do you have any advice for the new generation of filmmakers in Hong Kong?
Hong Kong cinema, thanks to the market conditions, is in a tough position. I hope that new filmmakers realise that filmmaking has always been tough. No matter the era you’re in, you still have to come up with new ideas to [get out of a] tough position.
There’s no need to be afraid. It’s good that many filmmakers are exploring the market in mainland China, but they shouldn’t stop there – they should look to explore [the markets in] the rest of the world as well. Films are about basic feelings, which can be understood by anyone anywhere. Think big, and think broader.
What does fame mean to you?
When you’re working in the film industry, fame is just a dream. It means very little. I would tell [new filmmakers] to treat their work seriously, and don’t take fame too seriously.
Your fame is built on the emotions of other people who decide in that particular instant if they like you or not. They can simply stop liking you tomorrow if you’ve done something [they don’t appreciate].
In other jobs, like if you’re a champion golfer, you’re still the champion tomorrow if you’ve done something bad today – nobody can take that away from you. If you’re a superstar, however, something can happen tomorrow and people can just decide to stop watching your films.