On the road again: An interview with Tsang Tsui-Shan
‘I think everyone is surprised there is countryside in Hong Kong!’ We chat to Tsang Tsui-Shan, director of Big Blue Lake and Lovers On The Road…
They say home is where the heart is, and that’s definitely the case for director Tsang Tsui-Shan, also known by her English name Jessey Tsang. Her latest feature, the award-winning Big Blue Lake – which picked up Best New Director at the 2012 Hong Kong Film Awards and Film of Merit at the 2012 Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards – has dug deep on her own personal experiences of her hometown Ho Chung, a rural village in the Sai Kung district to the north of the Hong Kong territory.
Beautifully shot in spite of its meagre budget, it tells the bittersweet story of a theatre actress, Cheung Lai-yee (played by Leila Kong) who returns home after 10 years away to find her father and brother abroad, and her mother suffering from Alzheimer’s and in need of care. She also meets an old school friend Lam Chun (played by Lawrence Chou) and together they begin looking for a lake she vaguely remembers, exploring the idea of memory on several levels.
Home is definitely not where Tsang is right now, though; joining me via Skype for an interview from Berlin where she’s working on her next project, she’s made her way there via Poland after attending a screening in London where her film was shown as part of HK15 Film Festival. Her Skype status reads ‘On the road’. She apologises for not having her video on as she’s just woken up. (I have to admit, with Germany being ahead by one hour and it being just after 8:30am UK time, I rather wish I’d done the same.)
Big Blue Lake is her second feature, having worked on and off since studying film at The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts 10 years ago. ‘My major was in sound design and recording, as I didn’t plan on becoming a filmmaker,’ she explains. But along the way she caught the bug, making short films. ‘My first was really just a personal documentary, with a simple camera.’ She then applied for art funding to start her fictional narratives.
She also obtained a Master of Fine Arts in the Media Design and Technology Programme from City University of Hong Kong in 2005. Between shorts, experimental work and getting her features off the ground, she filled in doing art administration, even did some film production around 2006, including work on Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. But often her own projects have related back to her village, such as the rather enjoyable multimedia project All About My Ho Chung. ‘I think it’s I just like it so much!’ she laughs. ‘I think really there’s just so much about the village that interest me. I still actually live there.’
In a very real sense, her interest is more in the villagers themselves, and their stories, than the actual physical location. She explains how common it is for inhabitants of Ho Chung to migrate overseas to work since the 50s. ‘So many villagers are going back and forth between the village and overseas, members of my family were drifting around different cities, like Paris and Beijing, for example. So even though I stayed in Hong Kong growing up, all these multicultural ideas and things because of my aunties and uncles surrounded me.
‘They were back and forth so often as their kids in a different country, it made me think about home and different spaces, different cities, and how different everyone’s story could be. It’s the community and the people within that community, their stories. So it’s not really just about my hometown, but it really does inspire me.’
Unsurprisingly that led her to explore the theme of migration over what she describes as a trilogy: the short films Lonely Planet and Où est la sortie? and first feature-length movie Lovers On The Road. ‘They’re all about a main female character drifting from city to city, about identity, about space. Some of Lonely Planet was filmed in my village, but Sortie was shot in Paris, and most of Lovers On The Road in Beijing. It was more about those places, the people; about friendship.’
Lonely Planet won her the Silver Award at ifva (Incubator for Film & Visual Media in Asia) in 2004, with Lovers on the Road winning the Best Drama Award of the 8th South Taiwan Film Festival in 2009.
Ironically, it was this exposure to overseas travelling that only made her appreciate home more. ‘Like everyone, when I was little I just wanted to see the world and explore. But I was 30 when I finished Lovers On The Road, and I realised just how much everywhere was the same. It wasn’t just the Starbucks – I’d go to some city in China and see dessert restaurant called Moon Kee, which started in my hometown. I just thought, “Wow, why do I need to travel? I think it’s time to go back home”.’ It was this experience that inspired her to make Big Blue Lake.
‘I felt I should make a homecoming movie, and also it was time to go back home, because your hometown is special. It has your childhood memory, your friends, your family; so this only unique place in the world. Because of globalisation, everywhere else is the same.’
So she began working on ideas with her scriptwriter, playing around with the ideas of reunion, the lake metaphor for a half forgotten memory, which she then related to the Alzheimer’s disease that the lead character’s mother suffers from. And then she realised that there was an significant coincidence approaching, the village reunion festival [Tai Ping Ching Chui or Dijiao festival] which happens every decade, so she decided to include that in the film, with her character returning after being away 10 years.
‘At the very beginning I didn’t plan to match the real festival because there was such a time difference, more than half a year, but I’m really glad I did. It was really wonderful to have that dialogue between fiction and non-fiction, between documentary and drama.’
Despite the drama of Lai-yee’s situation with her mother, the sentimentality is restrained. It avoids the overwhelming, gushing melodrama that is so often a part of Asian film nowadays. It also doesn’t take the easy route to commerciality of becoming more of a romantic drama or comedy between our leads (though the poster tagline and trailer may well try to persuade you otherwise).
‘I tried to pay attention to balance, because I needed to stick to the main focus of the film, her family and village, though between there is some romance. I just experiment with these aspects,’ she says rather modestly, ‘because in life there’s family, some romance, old schoolmates and so on. I kept reminding myself that the core theme of the film is a girl communicating with her family, going back to the village and reuniting with the community there. To that extent even the presence of the schoolmate, Chun, is as much about reunion as it is romance. I didn’t just want it to become a romantic melodrama.’
‘But overall there is some melodrama in Big Blue Lake. If you compare it to my previous film, Lovers On The Road was more slow-paced than that, with a simple flow to the story. I think if you watch that you’ll get a better idea of my filmmaking style.’
The cast of the film includes both professional actors, and local amateurs – many from the village itself.
‘At the beginning I didn’t think I could use a so-called actor or actress, because we had such a tiny budget. And then I was chatting with a friend about trying to find someone that looked like Lawrence Chou, and they said why don’t I just ask him?
‘It was the same with Leila Kong. I’ve known her a long time, but not particularly well. I really like her because I think she can play lots of different characters, but I think she gets typecast. Because she was a child star, people think she’s still really young – but she’s already in her 30s! So I thought we could change the sort of roles she plays, and the fact that she has acted in theatre matched the character I had written. So I invited her to be part of this film, and she liked my movies so much we agreed to try and work together.
‘I guess as there’s not really a lot of film production going on, if we want to make good film we thought why don’t we just ask an actor or actress to join us. And both of them were so nice! And then we got Amy Chum as the mother, and one by one the actors wanted to be involved.
‘And for villagers, I felt I should not just go to the agents to find extras. Of course I needed to include casting agents, but in the end I didn’t have the budget, and I just wanted more local people of join in.’
Was there anyone she knew from growing up in the town?
‘Yes, there’s a granny you see talking about farming, and also the man you see who used to be a sailor. The other singing granny is not actually from my village, though – I ‘borrowed’ her! Unfortunately some of the grannies in my village did not want me to film them, so I needed to bring her in from a nearby elderly centre.’
‘But we had a lot of fun. After the film was finished I organised a big party with cars and food. It was very nice,’ she laughs. In many respects, the act of making the film made reality mimic art. ‘The end of the movie is rather like a transition for me and the village in the same way that the play Lai-yee puts on in the movie was. I allowed myself and villagers to get closer.’
I cheekily ask, so does she prefer working with amateurs or professionals?
‘I think a lot of my films to date have been working with amateurs and friends, etc. But now I’m getting to a different level. I don’t mean bigger, but now I really need something that only a professional actor or actress can act, particularly in the leading roles. I still enjoy working with amateurs, if I find someone has a really wonderful character; like the villagers, they could simply be their role. So it’s not fixed, it just depends on the script.’
Watching the film in London with a large number of Hong Kong expats, it was notable just how much the film struck a chord. Does she think more ‘rural’ experiences have been overlooked?
‘I think everyone is surprised there’s surprised there is countryside in Hong Kong – they think it’s all just highrise buildings just like what they see in Johnnie To movies,’ she laughs.
‘So for me it’s kind of, well, I wouldn’t say mission, but I would love to show a different angle of Hong Kong, like my village. I think there are other films shot in the countryside, but much more are done in the city.’
It rather feels with all the co-productions with Mainland China and historical dramas, more local angles have been lost.
‘Hmmm, because now the numbers of those going to Hong Kong movies is a relatively small amount. So you might say there are lots of co-productions about martial arts and big historical dramas, you might say there are a lot less because there is not as much money, and there are a lot of co-productions on top of that.
‘There are some filmmakers who are still making films about local issues and social problems, like Ann Hui On-wah. Also Alex Law and Mabel Cheung made a film about the local community in Sheung Wan [Echoes of the Rainbow].
‘In the 80s there was so much production it showed the diversities more, and more investors were willing to allow filmmakers the room to take control of the content. But I think now they are much more market orientated. For example, Alex Law and Mabel Cheung wrote that film many years ago, and spent a long time looking for an investor for it.
‘Generally investors are looking for big box office, because they are really nervous about the local market. So they need to balance it, so they must think about more mass-market productions. Big Blue Lake, is an independent film. That’s why I can be so local; it’s a small budget so I have more individual flexibility and control. If it had been on a bigger scale I don’t think an investor would have given me money, simply because they wouldn’t get the return.’
And what does she think defines an independent filmmaker in Hong Kong?
‘I it’s more films that have the spirit of the author. But it’s really hard to be an independent filmmaker in Hong Kong now, especially as the screening venues are getting less and less. There are so many options now in Hong Kong. In the 60s and 70s everyone would have to go to the cinema, but now everyone can watch it at home.
‘And there’s not just film to contend with; there’s lot of games and the internet itself. So people care less about films, so we have to work hard to grab more audience. I thin it’s hard even for commercial films, so you can think about independent films being even more of a niche market.’
So who are her favourite filmmakers?
‘I like Ann Hui. I love Wong Kar-wai, the way he tells stories. Films like Days Of Being Wild and Happy Together,’ she laughs. ‘And actually I like Johnnie To. Maybe not every movie, but I think he’s really talented. I really like the films of Allen Fong and also Patrick Tam.’
Both filmmakers were part of the so-called Hong Kong New Wave, as was Ann Hui. (Patrick Tam’s vital contribution into filmmaking is largely forgotten or ignored outside of Hong Kong, as is his work as editor for Wong Kar-wai and Johnnie To.)
‘I think lots of Hong Kong filmmakers came from that era, but I think we really need some new blood now. I like Hong Kong movies, and I really support them, but now lots of filmmakers and crews go to Mainland China a lot, do lots of co-productions, every film crew. It’s kind of a pity. I wish we were able to make more local movies.’
Was there a scene in Big Blue Lake she was particularly proud of?
‘Hmmmmm,’ she thinks, ‘it’s really hard to say. Of course the ending, where we brought so many people together like that. But I’m not sure if I could pick just one scene.’
‘I am really glad that I asked my father to be involved in the scene with the daughter,’ she adds. Tsang’s own father played the character of Lai-yee’s dad. He has one of the best lines in the film; as they sit down to eat, Lai-yee dreading what he might say as she left under something of a cloud, he simply says, “How could I ever be mad at you.” It’s a softly played scene that says so much about family relationships by the very nature of very little actually being said. ‘His tone is always like that with me. That’s my father!’ she laughs.
Will he be in any more films?
‘We’ll see, we’ll see,’ she laughs again.
Did she run into any problems filming?
‘I think you always run into difficulties with filmmaking, but it’s a miracle we got to make this kind of film on such a small budget. We really didn’t think we would arouse so much publicity with this film. In the end we just tried to make it the best we could, getting more and more support and involvement from other parties. I’m very glad I could have such strong support. Sure there were lots of difficulties, but nothing relatively bad happened, touch wood, in between. I’m really glad.’
‘Of course, it’s not a perfect piece,’ she adds modestly. ‘I’m still faraway from being the best director. Right now I’m just a new director. So I would love explore more and open up more myself, to try new things.’
Which brings us to her next project, and the reason she’s in Germany right now.
‘I’m working on a documentary called Flowing Stories. This also relates to the Dijiao festival in my village, as I only touched on that event, captured a few moments. I really wanted this documentary to capture more the traditional activities in that event.
‘It’s basically about the reunion event, and I follow from Ho Chung where all six siblings in the family migrate overseas in Europe, different cities. So it’s shot there and on the way around Europe to see their everyday lives, and I’ve been working on it at the moment and it’s already in post-production, I’ve shot about 80%.
‘And also I’m developing the next feature, though it’s really at the idea stage so at the same time.’
I think we may have found some of that new blood. I admit I’m really looking forward to what Tsang Tsui-Shan comes up with next.