We chat exclusively about Dragon, working with Hong Kong martial art legends Donnie Yen and Jimmy Wang Yu, and the changing face of the global film industry…
Peter Ho-Sun Chan is a well-known name amongst fans of Hong Kong movies. In the 90s Chan made a name for himself directing smart romantic comedies with films including He’s A Woman, She’s A Man and Comrades: Almost A Love Story. More recently he directed action films with The Warlords and Dragon (Wu Xia). He’s also built an impressive career as a producer, with notable films including Three Extremes, The Eye and Bodyguards And Assassins.
Thank you for sparing us the time to chat. I know your time is precious so I’m going to dive straight in with the questions. How did the film Dragon come about? I’ve read it started as a conversation between you and lead star Donnie Yen over your love of martial art movies from the 60s and 70s?
Yes, it all started like that. We were both big fans of Shaw Brothers movies, and being born a year apart those were really our generation’s big movie icons. I think that was really my first movie influence before other Chinese or Hong Kong classics. So for me it was my first movie experience, back in the late 60s.
So how did that love of Shaw Brothers movies manifest itself into a film?
Well, first of all we were both big fans of one of the first films we would ever have seen – it’s probably earliest memory I have – watching the legendary One-Armed Swordsman. It’s a very simple story, but it was actually a revolution for that time in terms of martial arts film. It’s much more kinetic, the shots break up in much more detail, as opposed to previous films that were much more staged and used wide shots, and so on. There were cuts to close ups and montage; the editing was stronger and more kinetic. That was filmed in 1967, and I think that changed the landscape of martial arts film – it became the basis for further developments in martial art films from then on.
And so we were both such big fans of that film. I remember every kid around the block pretending that they only had one arm, holding a broken knife and stuff like that. Because my father worked at the Shaw studio as head of promotion at the time, I actually remember visiting the Shaw studio and going to the actual locations and holding the prop swords from the department for the film. [Wow!] And I took a picture pretending I was Jimmy Wang Yu.
‘I remember visiting the Shaw Brothers studios [as a kid] and holding the prop swords from One-Armed Swordsman. I took a picture pretending I was Jimmy Wang Yu.’
So we wanted to make a movie that had a very simple story; a very typical, simple, jiang hu/wuxia story about a runaway convict trying to life a new life, only his past comes back to haunt him. Which is a very classic martial arts story, at least in the 60s and 70s. And to me, this was my first true martial arts film, even though I’ve done a few before – period films, that may have been sold as action, but they were really much more dramas – and this is really the first film that I wanted to be action centric, less about the story. But then again, every director can only do something that he can relate to, so in the process, working with the writer and spending the next year developing the script, we ended up putting much more complex, character driven stuff than most of the original martial arts stories that I wanted to make: by adding the character of Takeshi Kaneshiro, by adding the conflict between law and humanity, crime and punishment, and ultimately the showdown with the characters own father. That it all runs in the family, it’s genetics; that his violence comes from his father.
So the films linage is really validated by the appearance of the One-Armed Swordsman himself, Jimmy Wang Yu.
Very much so, it wasn’t planned in the beginning…
That was going to be my question, when did he become involved?
It’s sort of strange we didn’t even think of that in the beginning! [Laughs.] We writing the script, as I said, and when we finally got it into a shape where we knew this was going to be that movie that we were going to make, we were scratching our heads trying to find the right actor to play the father. Because, first of all you have an actor that never appears in the movie until the ending, and he only has very short screen time to build his presence; he’s only talked about, and you don’t want his appearance to be a disappointment to the audience because he’s bragged about throughout the film? And then how do you find someone who’s a powerful villain; who has that kind of presence but at the same time you need to build the compassion between him and his son?
So it’s not a clear-cut, black and white character that you can just hate: I have to make Donnie Yen cry when he’s about to kill him. It’s not an easy role to cast. We actually went into the production without that role cast, because that actor was not required according to the schedule until the end of the shoot; we’d shoot his part last. So as we begin production I remember we were already on location, and one day it pops into my head, why am I scratching my head, why don’t I just go get Jimmy?
‘Jimmy Wang Yu? It’s sort of strange we didn’t even think of him in the beginning!’
First of all, he has that presence; he was a big superstar of the calibre of Donnie Yen and even Bruce Lee before him. The thing is that kind of hard man hero, that kind of character in his presence is something that could not be tarnished by time, and for people who’ve seen him, once in a while he appears on tabloids and so on, he looks as good as he was. Except that actually has more edge; he looks tougher. So if you know some of the off screen story about violent he is in person, when he gets intimidated; he got into fights when he was young, and was getting into fights all the time, brawling with more than 10 or 20 people – just him and his two fists. All those stories about him fascinate the Chinese audience that remember who he was.
So all that off screen and on screen presence together adds to the aura around Jimmy. That made him the perfect person for the role. And the same time, because he was the leading man for a long time, a screen hero, and that kind of compassion stayed with him; it’s someone you can actually empathise with in the film. He’s not a villain you just want to hate.
So I gave him a call. I don’t know him personally, I asked a friend who knows him very well to give him a call, and Jimmy happened to have just seen Warlords. He said, ‘If this is the director of Warlords I’ll do it!’. He showed up on set within a week, and we decided to shave his head, give a bald look. And he was perfect, he needs no direction!
It made me just want to see more of Jimmy, it reminded me of how great he was in those old 60s and 70s movies. With The Warlords and Dragon, you’ve shown how you can get great performances from leads that are really only known for action, like Jet Li and Donnie Yen. What’s your secret?
I think the secret is because I’m not an action director, and that’s it! It’s not rocket science: you’ve given an action star to a non-action director, and then the director will have to find ways to make them look better in his film that sets these actors apart from other things that they’ve been in. When they’re with me it works to my strength because most of these actors have not been given a chance to show who they really are – except for their action skills. For me it’s like working in virgin territory. It’s actually harder to work with very accomplished dramatic actors because their [skills] been exploited left and right, they’ve played so many different roles. When you work with action stars, because they’ve not been exploited anywhere else but in action, then it gives you a lot more options. And then my method, in which I don’t think any other director would differ, is to try to talk to them and befriend them, and learn who they really are, and write their characters into the role. That’s the only thing I did.
In Warlords, the role of Jet Li was very similar to how it is in person. Jet Li’s aggressive, he doesn’t kowtow to authority; that’s what made him leave China very early on, and even when he came to Hong Kong he did not bow to the studio system at all and decided to start his own company. And that respect he’s exactly like the character in Warlords.
And so is Donnie like his character in Dragon. He’s very much a family man, and I think he has a lot of repressed emotions inside him of how people see him. Because he’s very different internally to what he’s been sold as: the big action star. You know Donnie’s a very accomplished piano player? I think he inherited two very extreme abilities and artistry from his parents. First his father is an intellectual newspaper editor and writer, and secondly his mother is both a martial artist and also a musician. So he’s got these very extreme two sides that he’s both an action guy and also an artist. And in that way he’s very much like the character he’s playing, who’s very evil but also he’s a nice father, he’s a very ordinary man who loves his family and he’s trying to live a quiet life.
So in a way, what you do is you try to dig into the actors life and character and past, and try to make the role appealing to the actor by getting them involved in a way that they feel like they’re telling their own stories. And people get more engrossed and excited when they’re telling their own stories.
The film looks fantastic. I wondered how you came up with the distinctive style for the film? I hear one of the cinematographers, Jake Pollock, is being described as the ‘new Chris Doyle’?
Well I love working with Jake, and it’s our first collaboration. But I totally disagree that he’s the new Chris Doyle [There can only be one!] because the approach is completely different. Chris is very free, and free spirited, doesn’t believe in planning. He’s just takes his handheld, and he can’t let other people operate his camera – which is a very old way of how we shot movies in Hong Kong in the 80s and the 90s. It’s all up to the moment when we’re shooting the movie, his mood, everything; it’s very unscientific. Which is what is so beautiful about his work, it’s totally spontaneous.
Whereas Jake is very well planned, and Jake like to work within the very planned lighting an production. Chris a cameraman, he’s totally about handling the camera and the movement and so on. But Jake is all about lighting. The best thing about Jake is that one of his best abilities is his willingness to go the distance in lighting period night scenes, with minimal, or even totally without, lighting.
‘I only started making period films a few years ago and I find completely unbelievable and unauthentic that most of our night scenes are shot with tons of lights!’
We shot a lot of scenes with a very experimental method by not using a lot of light. I think the problem is I only started making period films a few years ago, with Warlords, and I find completely unbelievable and unauthentic that most of our night scenes are shot with tons of lights. When you’re in a rural area it’s impossible to see. I mean, you should actually shoot the night scenes completely in the dark and black, and just drop the sound, because people don’t see at night. However, every time we shoot night scenes in the traditional lighting method by Hong Kong cinematographers you would light the whole village. Everything looks like it’s really well lit, because that’s how you see what’s going on in the movie, but it’s so non-authentic.
So with Jake I tried to push him to – well not exactly like Stanley Kubrick did in Barry Lyndon – but to as use source lighting as much as we can rather than big studio lights. And he agreed! Somehow he has his way of even doing candlelight that is very dim, even when we were on location. I was pretty amazed that we could actually catch images on film, because it looked pretty dim even when I was on location. And last year when I was in Venice I was talking to Michael Mann about it because he was using digital for collateral, and the only reason was he was shooting night LA, and he wanted to be authentic. And I had not used digital cameras until my latest movie, American Dreams In China.
That’s just one of the things I like about Jake. I also like his movement and his use of colour, his aesthetics, which are completely compatible with mine. We spend a lot of time talking about aesthetics, colour, and what theme from China it should reflect. Especially the lush green we wanted the main palette of the film to be. But the most important accomplishment was how he shot night scenes.
This film is one of several you’ve collaborated with writer/director Aubrey Lam on. What attracts you to her work?
I probably gave her her first job in the industry; she was just a young writer starting out with no experience, and something just clicked. I think the way we see humanity is both critical and blunt, and sometimes a little bit harsh about the reality of life, but at the same time we still have a sense of hope or romanticism covering the brutality of human nature. Somehow that balance of romanticism and reality is what really connected us.
And in almost every one of my films, even if she didn’t completely write it, I would go to her for a draft. Because I knew she’d know exactly what I want; she has the ability and the craft to make that into a script. I think that’s she’s the one writer who really knows my mind that well.
This, however, is one of the few experiences where I have not used any other writers. Most of my films have multiple writers, go through multiple drafts, including Warlords, but this one, we still had a few drafts, but all written by Aubrey. And she added so much. As I said, it all started off very simple wuxia story about a man who is trying to run away from his past, but it catches up to him, and she added all the crimes and punishments, and the deeper part of the film – which became very inspiring to me – and even including one element which we thought was more daring and new in this film: by trying to explain some of these punches and fighting techniques and what they do to your body, how it goes into your vein and stuff like that. Those little bits of medical facts mixed in, it was all developed with her.
The US/UK release is significantly shorter than the original. I wondered how that came about and where the decision came from?
Well it’s the distributor, Weinstein Company, who have a better understanding of Western audiences, and I’m always very adaptable to that. As a producer I know that films are made for different audiences, and different audiences have different perspectives, different backgrounds and knowledge of films that will give them different opinions of the film, and I respect that as a producer. But of course, my other role as a director I want to give you the best version of the film. In my last 20-odd years of career I’ve been at both sides of the table, especially lately I’ve always held both positions, I produce my own films, so I always get to balance the two out and see it as objectively as I can. Not without a lot of pain and not without a lot internal struggle.
Sometimes it takes a month or two, or even three, to get to a more rational decision; and I think the Western cut, the cut you’ll see is a compromise between the director side of me and the producer side of me. It did take a few months, even though it’s not a lot of cuts, for me to internalise it and digest it, and except it. But it’s just a process you have to go through when you want to get your film out to an audience that is not of the same background or culture.
I believe your next film, which you mentioned before, American Dreams in China, debuts in the next few days [it premiered the following week after the interview in China]. Can you tell me about it?
It’s a very interesting film, and it’s my first film since I came to work in China – coming from being a Hong Kong filmmaker – that’s a contemporary film, set in China today. Because there is always a cultural difference between Hong Kong and China, they’re very, very different. We speak different languages; have different systems, culture and everything else.
It made it almost impossible to be able to shoot films about contemporary China, because I’ve never lived here. So the result was Warlords, Bodyguards And Assassins, Wu Xia; we made a few period action films, which is not my forte to start with, but that was easier than making a contemporary film because I’m not mainland Chinese.
So this is the first time that I’ve ventured out of my comfort zone, and decided that if you have to be a filmmaker then you’ve got to make films about people lives today. And actually that was my forte when I was in Hong Kong. So just uprooting yourself and putting yourself somewhere else you should be able to learn the culture there. I still used Aubrey to do my first draft, I employed a lot teams and crews, even writers that I’ve not worked with before, to get me a more realistic take on of what China is today, and what China was 20 or 30 years ago – because the film spans from the 80s to 2005. It’s spans 25 years in China, the most important 25 years with the whole economic reform; and how it became what it is today.
So this movie is really a success story of the last 20 years of an English language tutorial empire that taught people how to speak English, and how to get visas to go to America. It’s about three college friends in the 80s, building this empire in the 90s, and going public in Wall Street in 2005. So it’s a success story of three ‘new Chinese’ interpreters.
Well taking about comfort zones, you became one of several Hong Kong directors to make a Hong Kong film in Hollywood with The Love Letter (though you managed to avoid making an action or horror genre movie). What did you make of the experience, and would you do it again?
I would never say no to anything, being old enough to know that when you say ‘no’ it’s very naive and immature. But the thing is, I couldn’t say that was my best experience, but it was a good experience to prep me for the corporate world of filmmaking. Because you go, and you know Hong Kong filmmakers are like small brats; because as commercial as the Hong Kong industry was it’s always been very independent in spirit. We made commercial films, but they were all based on the decisions of filmmakers not studios. With the Hong Kong studios there’s less intervention from the studio, and they promote the films with less marketing. When it gets marketing you get more corporate and you have target audience you’re aiming at, which is great for business but it limits the creative freedom. And directors are like just one piece of the puzzle, one nut or one bolt of the machine.
My experience shooting was actually quite nice with The Love Letter, but it was really more marketing and then the tweaking at the end, the test screenings and trying to make the end into a conventional happy ending that the Hollywood studio needs. And I’d chosen to make The Love Letter because it was a smaller budget movie, and I’d thought that because of that it wouldn’t go through the same kind of intervention or commercial tweaking – but I was wrong! It doesn’t matter how much you spend. If you go through the studio system, you still need to go through the same process. Had I known that I probably would have chosen a bigger movie to make; there’s no difference between making a small, 15 million dollar romantic comedy than 100 million blockbuster. Ironically I was attached to different developments, but I’d chosen the smaller one because I thought it would be more independent in spirit.
‘I chose The Love Letter because it was a smaller budget movie. Had I known it would go through the same studio intervention I probably would have made a bigger movie.’
So that whole experience got me more set up for what I eventually came back to, which was not Hong Kong. I came back to Hong Kong after 2000, but by 2004 I’d started making films in China, and China today is becoming more and more like Hollywood every single day. Because the market is getting bigger and bigger, and very soon there’ll be a big as the American domestic market, and the studio system is beginning to become more concrete now. There are more and more vertically integrated companies, with distribution, production, and management – very much like the studios – and when you get to a big market, we’re actually spending more time on marketing the movie than we spend making them nowadays. And sometimes we spend more money marketing them than we spent making them!
So we’re becoming more and more like Hollywood. So I’m actually glad that I had that Hollywood experience to prep for what I have to go through now, and probably for the rest of my life as Chinese film becomes more and more professional and industrialised. Then you just realise it’s not about Hollywood or the West or the East, it’s really just about when you have a big market. It’s the same everywhere: it becomes corporate.
And the same thing is happening elsewhere, like in Korea.
Exactly. That’s just the way it is.
So can we talk about your work as a producer? What did you hope to achieve by founding Applause Pictures in 2000?
When I started Applause Pictures it was rebound in a way from my time in Hollywood. It was a time that was very strange in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong industry was going really downhill – it was completely crap! – and there a wasn’t really a healthy mainland Chinese market yet. That was the time before Crouching Tiger, before Hero. Crouching Tiger never really made the big breaks in China, but it sets up the stage for Hero that came three years later, and it became the biggest hit in China which started the whole Chinese film industry economic reform. The economic reform started in 1978, but for the film industry it was really 2002.
So when I came back from Hollywood in 2000 there was really nothing to look up to in Asia except Korea and Thailand, which were two of the fastest growing industries of film capital. Having a little bit of a background in Bangkok, because I grew up there when I was young, and having a little bit of an edge because both Koreans and Thais watched a lot of Hong Kong films growing up. Even though by that time the films were not in vogue, most filmmakers were big fans of Hong Kong films. So I raised a little bit of finance and I decided to work on a Pan-Asian model of filmmaking. I tried to co-produce with Korean and Thai filmmakers to actually create more interesting movies that would revitalise the Asian film industry, if not most importantly the Chinese film industry, which was really going very badly.
For a few years we doing pretty well, doing these so-called Pan-Asian films. But we realised that when the film works for Pan-Asia, it also works in Europe and other territories. For example, our biggest hits were The Eye and Three series of films – all of which were horror films. They sold really well, one was even the number 1 film in Italy on its opening weekend. So we realised that when the film works, it’s not only Pan-Asian, it’s Pan-World. But the thing is, in that respect, anything that we made that was not horror would not work. There’s still a cultural and a distribution barrier, because distributors only believe in the ‘norms’. And those norms are to watch films with less subtitles, and to watch films with background, languages or actors that we are familiar with.
In that respect the Pan-Asian film won’t last very long, and I didn’t want to be making horror films because that’s really not my forte. [Which is a shame, as his segment for Three, Going Home, is one of the best ghost stories, if not exactly horror, of that decade.] So the company’s still in existence, but we make very few films, perhaps once every three or four years when we see one that works for that model.
And then by 2003/4 we see that China is just about ripe as a market to be tackled, so I started planning my first Hong Kong/China co-production in 2004.
It’s quite interesting to hear you talk about Three and Three Extremes. Did you realise quite how big Kim Jee-woon and Park Chan-wook would become internationally back then?
Well no, at that time the world was very different. I had no doubts about their talents, I was amazed when I saw their movies and that’s why I wanted to work with them. I was lucky enough with Applause to have a good partner in Korea and a good partner in Thailand who were both producers, and they both had very good connections with local talent. That’s how I got to know both Kim and Park and work with them.
‘I know Kim Jee-woon quite well, and I know how stubborn he is as a director. I was quite surprised when he ended up working on The Last Stand!’
However, having had the experience of working in Hollywood, I that that if us Hong Kong filmmakers found it intimidating, it would be even more difficult for Koreans. Korean directors are much more spoilt than Hong Kong directors. I think if there is one culture in Asia that is more practical and down to earth, and less about ego, it would be Hong Kong. Thai’s don’t either. Mainland China has got a lot of ego, Korea’s got a lot of ego. And Korean directors tend not to speak very good English. Those were the shortcomings that I thought the Koreans had, so thought no matter how good they are as directors – and I’ve no doubt that they are great directors – they’re independent directors, they’re not directors who can work within the studio system.
So I actually was quite shocked to see this trend over the last couple of years, especially when Kim Jee-woon ended up working on The Last Stand. That’s the least likely movie that I thought Kim would make as his first Hollywood film. I know Kim quite well, and I know how stubborn he is as a director, but then I guess everybody has a price. When they decide to do something, I think the desire to achieve is bigger than the ego, and then it works. But I was quite surprised!
So it’s probably time I wrap up the questions now, so I’d like to ask in your long career, what film is your favourite own film, and what actor have you most enjoyed working with?
That’s not really a hard question, because I really love working with Takeshi Kaneshiro. I’ve not worked with any actors more than twice. Of course I’ve worked with Eric Tsang five, six, seven times, but only as a supporting actor. I’ve actually never worked with a lead actor for more than two times; stars like Tony Leung Chui wai, Tony Leung Ka Fai, Leon Lai. I’ve worked with Kaneshiro three times now and counting – I still want to work with him again! Somehow it just clicks, he very beautiful to look at and he’s very deep and passionate about things. When you look at him he’s just very convincing. Even though people have often been distracted by his appearance, and sometimes overlook his talent as an actor, but I think he’s a very good actor and very committed. He also makes me work harder, because he’s very inquisitive and very high maintenance as an actor – that’s good for a director because that’s a kick in my butt all the time. And I love working with him!
I wouldn’t say what is my favourite film because I don’t think I have one, but my personal film would definitely be Perhaps Love.
Because it was so different doing a musical?
Yes, and I think it’s about growing up, it’s about love in a more blunt way than usual. It’s actually a more realistic version of Comrades: Almost A Love Story; it’s about how you balance love with the material world, as opposed to true love. The most important thing for me was through the medium of music and songs, which was not my favourite direction, but because I decided on making a musical it brought me into a world where I realised I could do explanations on the characters inner feelings without using voiceovers. I’d been terrified that I could not make a movie without a voiceover, because I find it pivotal in telling my stories and revealing my characters insights. And in Perhaps Love, I found a way through lyrics that showed that people could behave one way and actually think another.
Again, thank you so much for your time. I really hope that Dragon does well on its UK release, and your new film American Dreams In China is also very successful.
Wu Xia aka Dragon, is released on UK DVD from 26 August by Metrodome Distribution.
Comrades: Almost a Love Story screens as part of the BFI Century OF Chinese Cinema at the BFI Southbank.
Peter Chan was interviewed over the phone on 10 April 2013. Thanks to Peter Chan, Metrodome Distribution and David Cummins at Substance for organising the interview. Interview originally published on 29 April 2013.