Philip Yung Tsz-kwong Uses Nudity and Corpses to Paint the Dark Side of Hong Kong
The film critic-turned-director's movies explore the desperation of the city's lower classes. His latest crime thriller “Port of Call” is based on the real-life tale of a murdered prostitute.
I grew up in a very lower-class environment. Even now, I’m still a lower-class man. My family life was very full and happy. I still live with my mom and dad. People are always surprised that I focus on these “dark side stories.” I can’t stand blood and violence. But growing up in such a safe environment, that kind of thing to me is just a scholarly investigation.
In my graphic scenes, it’s all full-on nudity, or a full view of a corpse. I never want the audience to feel hands-off, like they’re safe as a bystander. Perhaps for myself too, I want to be breaking through that fear. There was a 1982 film “Lonely Fifteen,” about so-called bad girls in that era who took up prostitution. I loved that movie. Someone got me to film a remake [“May We Chat”] about the next generation of bad girls.
People meet each other through WeChat and start talking, and spark up relationships that way. It’s an interesting phenomenon—in this generation there’s just no clear-cut line between compensated dating or just promiscuity anymore. I actually struggled to find financing [for “Port of Call”]. They wanted me to film it in the very exploitative, 90s mystery-horror style of “The Untold Story” [aka “Human Flesh Char Siu Bao”].
Hong Kong was shaken by the 2008 case [that inspired “Port of Call”]: the bones of the victim were scattered at the Shek Kip Mei wet market, and people were afraid that when they were buying pork bones it would be human remains. The killer told the police that the girl had told him that she really wanted to die, so he helped her. This was what piqued my interest: On their first meeting, how did they suddenly establish this commitment to kill?
She was only 16. She had previously moved from Hunan to Dongguan to be closer to the border. Her mother had remarried in Hong Kong and had only brought her older sister over. Can you imagine? A girl alone in Dongguan between the ages of nine and 13. This was the prime of her puberty, growing up completely alone. This case represents a lot of problems in Hong Kong. For instance, why is the previous generation so obsessed with immigrating here—why even now?
The kids from the mainland are dragged here because it’s the mothers who still want to find their dreams. It’s so tough living in Hong Kong. We are a pressure cooker as a city. Even compensated dating is just a type of emptiness. Can the money help them achieve anything? It doesn’t provide warmth or a full stomach. In modern society, a lot of very poor people have iPhones. All we have are symbols.
I believe Hongkongers nowadays have lost the ability to think for themselves. We are the city of taking sides. People will ask you, “Do you like CY Leung? Or Joshua Wong?” I really appreciate the youngsters who step out with these revolutionary ideas. But the issue is not the few who step out as symbols. It depends on all the people below who are watching. It depends on how they are reacting.
Hongkongers don’t really want to tell Hong Kong stories anymore. There’s an increasing segregation in film between what’s pure entertainment value and what’s considered art house cinema. We need movies that will stimulate people. It can be something entertaining and accessible, but still observing and reacting to our homegrown sentiments.
Awards are of course important to me. It’s an acknowledgement that gives me confidence, and encourages me to continue making films. I hope one day I can be more cavalier about it and say “oh, they don’t matter” and I’ll still continue making whatever I want. But I’m not there yet.
A version of this article appears in the December 4, 2015 issue of HK Magazine as First Person.